Create an Equal Relationship and Lasting Love with True Acts of Service

Years ago, while doing groups for men, I was introduced to The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. The author explains there are essentially five ways to show love and we each have one or two main ways that we feel most loved: acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, time together, and gifts. Generally, the author explains we show and long for love the way we experienced love growing up.

Without awareness of your partner’s primary love languages, your efforts to show them love may not have the intended effect. This may leave you feeling confused or even frustrated.

What are True Acts of Service?

What true acts of service do women need to feel loved and supported? This question was posed by a male listener on the We Can Do Hard Things podcast hosted by best-selling authors Glennon Doyle and wife Abby Wambach along with Glennon’s sister, Amanda. The women assert that attending to the basic tasks of housework or childcare are not true acts of service but rather acts of “adulting”- the bare minimum that should be expected of all adults.

True acts of service involve some of the Gottmans’ key practices for cultivating lasting love and equal relationships – turning towards and accepting influence. Turning towards requires being intentional about paying attention to both the spoken and unspoken needs of your partner. Accepting influence is not just yielding to your partner’s ideas but truly seeing and hearing your partner and taking initiative. Both require staying present with vulnerable emotions.

What gets in the way?

We live in a society where there are so many ways to “check out” through distracting, numbing or avoiding our vulnerable emotions. The Gottmans found the majority of turning away happens out of mindlessness, not a lack of care. Many fathers often feel more of a sense of competence at work in the early days following birth, which can pull them away from home and reinforce gendered division of labor.

True Acts of Service require rejecting rigid gender socialization. But many of these internalized beliefs are unconscious and unspoken. Women’s anger can be a signal of inequality but often women have been taught to suppress their anger until it spills over. Instead of feeling heard and validated by their partners, many of my female clients describe feeling ignored or attacked by their partners when they try to confront them about the massive responsibility they feel. This makes sense in light of Dr. Gottman’s discovery that men may become flooded or physiologically overwhelmed when triggered. While some get defensive, many shut down or stonewall.

True acts of service require taking initiative

Rather than waiting for a partner’s resentment to grow, it’s important for partners to initiate regular meetings to celebrate what’s working, express appreciation, and ensure a balanced distribution of housework and childcare.

Instead of simply checking off tasks, true acts of service require being proactive and taking full responsibility for plans. Practicing mindful presence helps you better understand and even anticipate needs. Then you can take initiative for finding solutions. Glennon’s sister gave the example of researching and booking the therapist or tutor for a child who is struggling, rather than waiting and simply showing up after being told when and where the appointment is as the difference between a true act of service and “adulting.”

Make agreements where you assume ownership for certain responsibilities or take turns. For example, arranging the sitter, not just suggesting date night or doing an inventory of clothes and school supplies before taking kids back to school shopping, rather than just expecting a list from your partner are some of the ways you can cultivate an equal, lasting relationship.  

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