Sometimes we talk about loving others as if it’s simple, and while Meagan and I have both included activities in our posts that could be added to a “love checklist,” no list of exercises will solve all of your relationship problems. Instead, loving someone is about cultivating habits that show love, investing in those relationships, and looking for ways to improve your communication.

Here are a few other components of love that are harder to put into practice but worth cultivating in any relationship:

Empathy :: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
Seeing and really feeling things through the perspective of the other person is so incredibly helpful in any conflict, but it’s so hard to do in practice. Too often we set ourselves up as opposing forces (“You’re taking a break while I’m working,” or “You did XYZ and I asked you to do ABC”), rather than taking a moment to hear and really understand where the other person is coming from.

Grace :: assuming the best about another person
Similarly, while we want other people to think the best of us in any situation, we often jump to the worst conclusion about their motives or whether they really love us whenever they do anything that hurts or upsets us.

Giving each other the benefit of the doubt, on the other hand, can remove the hurt and anger and leave room for real dialogue. So many misunderstandings could be avoided or cleared up if we’d just believe the best about the other person rather than automatically assuming the worst.

It also means recognizing that we too make mistakes and then extending the same forgiveness that we would want extended to us.

Vulnerability :: being susceptible to hurt
The sad truth is that if you love someone, they will hurt you at some point. And you will hurt them. Whether it’s failing to live up to expectations or being intentionally unkind in a moment of anger, hurt is inevitable.

Disagreements and, yes, even “fighting” are part of most relationships, but they’re not necessarily a sign that something’s wrong. In fact, in an otherwise healthy relationship, I would argue that being hurt is a sign that you’re doing it right, by opening your heart to an imperfect person. And resolving those hurts, rather than holding them in or building a dividing wall when they happen, can provide mortar for the framework of your relationship—making it stronger each time it’s added.

Presence :: being present in a place or thing
My husband’s love language is quality time. In actuality, it’s not even quality time he craves…just time. He just wants to be together, even when we’re doing different things.

My kids, on the other hand, want me all there with them—body and mind. They want me to listen to their stories, laugh at their antics, participate in their silliness.

Similarly, when a friend of mine’s husband became suddenly and critically ill two years ago, our community took turns simply sitting in the hospital waiting room. Sometimes one of us sat alone, sometimes my friend and various family members would be waiting there for news. It didn’t matter to us whether we spent time with her or not; we just decided we would make sure that someone was always present, just in case she needed us and just to show we cared.

When we’re constantly focused on our to-do lists or tasks, we can miss out on the chance to really be present and available for other people. It’s all too easy to put “presence” at the bottom of our to-do list. But while presence might be taken for granted in a relationship, absence speaks loudly and can make the people in your life feel unloved, which means this one is worth practicing before its absence is noted.

Letting Go of Expectations :: things you assume are likely to happen
Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you the subject of many of the messages we heard in youth group, but there is one that has always stuck with me. I am 99% sure this was not the main point of the message, but one of our youth leaders was sharing how her expectations of her kids affect her reactions to their behavior. If she expects them to behave perfectly and they misbehave, she’s frustrated and angry. If she expects them to need correction, she’s patient and loving. I am not perfect about remembering this in my own life, but it rings true every time I apply it to a situation.

There are three kinds of dangerous expectations. There are the unrealistic expectations, like these:

  • If I expect my husband to anticipate my every whim and want, I’m frustrated when he can’t read my mind.
  • If I expect my girls to behave like miniature adults, to never disappoint or embarrass me, I am frustrated by reality.
  • If I expect a friend or neighbor to never annoy me, to always think and act like I would, our friendship is built on shaky ground.

These may not even be conscious expectations, but they’re there nonetheless.

There’s also unspoken expectations:

We bring expectations to any relationship based on past relationships the family we grew up with, our personality and so on—things like expecting our spouse to take out the trash without being asked or receiving flowers on certain holidays or wanting a friend to reply right away to a text. If we’ve never shared them with the other person, they’re a bit like land mines to our relationships—the other person never knows when they might step on one!

And finally, even spoken expectations can be dangerous to a relationship if they become unmet expectations. It’s not healthy to demand that someone bring you flowers every Friday—just like your dad did for your mom—and expecting that to happen can set you up for disappointment if it’s not something that your partner enjoys doing or thinks of on his own. Similarly, I can tell my kids that I expect them to stay in bed, but if I don’t prepare myself that it might take practice and training for this to actually happen, I’m just going to be angry that they’re not meeting that expectation.

Letting go of unrealistic, unspoken and unmet expectations—and realizing when they are coloring our response to a situation—can make it easier to show grace and empathy in a relationship as well!

ACTIVITIES & QUESTIONS

  1. Which of these love components is easiest for you to practice? Which is the hardest?
  2. How would showing empathy in a relationship in your life affect the way you feel about and interact with that person?
  3. Where are you assuming the worst or holding someone to too high of a standard? How can you show them grace?
  4. Are you vulnerable in your relationships, or do you try to protect yourself from hurt? How can you be vulnerable with someone to strengthen that relationship?
  5. Does simply being present come easily for you, or is it difficult for you pull out of your head and away from your to-do list to just be? How can you practice presence?
  6. What unrealistic, unspoken or unmet expectations are hurting your relationships?

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