In a relationship, words can be power. They can build, they can destroy, they can control and they can free. But in a marvelous display of life’s contradictions, words can also be very weak. Much of the time, it matters less what the words are, and more about the tone, feeling, and intention behind the words. As a writer, it pains me to say this: sometimes words just don’t cut it. Take “I love you.” These three words have the power to sway hearts, profess devotion, and bond lives together. But they can also sound hollow, ringing empty on the battleground of a relationship littered with broken promises.
Some people say actions speak louder than words, but I believe that phrase is misleading because it separates words from action. It creates a dichotomy that actually doesn’t exist. You see, actions give words their power. Words mean very little without some form of follow-through. Words are like a seed, where actions are like the flower the seed will become; the promise of something more.
The most common place we find this truth is in our most intimate relationships. The words we speak to our loved ones have a tendency to become hollow and meaningless if we fail to follow them with action. “I support you” isn’t believable if every time he is stressed about how much work he has to do you remind him that you never thought he should pursue entrepreneurship in the first place. And “I love you” can leave a bitter taste in her ears if you never cook her favorite dish or buy her flowers or give her that massage you know she needs. “I’m sorry” starts to sound automatic and insincere when there is no progress in avoiding thing you are sorry about.
Without some form of action, without “doing” something, the words you say and promises you make are cheap. You learned that when you were five and your mom threatened to spank you but never followed through no matter how long you misbehaved. Or when you were in high school and your father promised to let you go to that party if you could show him an A on the report card, only to keep you home instead.
When you constantly hear words of affirmation, but no action that coincides with them, it becomes more difficult to believe the words in the first place. Broken promises are the worst offender of this; in the case of a broken promise, the actions are a direct contradiction to the words. Pretty soon, it’s easy to disregard the words and get to the true meaning beneath them: you’re not worth the follow-through. It might not be what the speaker really means, but it’s the meaning we hear. And if there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this earth it’s that perception is reality.
If I continuously tell my wife I love her but I don’t get tickets to take her to her favorite show when it’s in town, or clean the house when I know its current state is causing her distress, or plan a date, or a number of other small things I could do to show her that I love her, she will soon begin to doubt the words. Perhaps she will even begin to question whether they were ever true.
I fail at this on a daily basis. I mean, I’m really, really bad at this. I struggle to make my relationships, particularly my relationship with my wife, a priority because I’m too busy listening to the noise in my life. It might be work, my writing, the bank account, or even my inability to see opportunities to show love. Whatever it is, I tend to do the wrong thing, or not do the right thing.
It’s not that I don’t love my wife. I do, immensely so. But if she can’t feel that, then I’ve failed. It’s my duty to find a way to make it known. It’s my job to know how she experiences love. Words of affirmation, love, and support are truly powerful, but I also need to take actions, however small, to reinforce to her that she is the most important person in my life.
This isn’t about buying the best gifts or purchasing someone’s affection. It’s not manipulation of any kind. It’s simply how we, as humans, are wired. We so easily forget good things and let negative emotions take over: pain, fear, doubt, anger, it’s all just waiting to envelop us. We need constant reminders that those feelings are not who we are, and they do not represent what our lives are about.
My biggest struggle is finding the money for it, or finding the right opportunity. Or rather, those are my biggest excuses. I can’t count the times I wanted to buy my wife a bouquet of flowers but I didn’t want to spend the money. Or we didn’t have a vase. Or I didn’t have a chance to sneak away for a few minutes to buy one and get it home to surprise her with it. Or a million other things. But if I’m honest, those excuses can’t be leaned on.
How many times did I spend twenty dollars over the course of the week on junk food or coffee? How often did I have the chance while I was running errands to pick up some flowers as well? Life is a series of choices, and when you prioritize coffee over flowers, or an extra hour at work over being home early to cook dinner, we make a choice. Sometimes working long hours is necessary. But more often than not, it becomes an excuse that most of society accepts. Rather, these things should be an exception to the rule.
We can come up with a hundred ways or reasons not to do something, but in reality the strongest relationships thrive because both people are constantly working to affirm their commitment to the relationship. We all have friends that don’t follow through with what they say - and we all know how that makes us feel. We’ve all felt the sting of a broken promise or the drought of inaction, whether it’s a friend who always says “we should grab coffee” but never follows through, or a significant other who seems to always have better things to do than pay attention to us.
We have to be better than that. We have to be better than just our words. It’s not easy, and failure comes with the territory. And the longer you’re in a relationship, the more failure you’ll see and experience. The trick is to keep trying, keep improving; to live in a constant state of grace for yourself and for the other, and to focus on the things that are going right rather than keeping a list of wrongs.a
Words are good. Speaking affirmations into someone’s life can be a powerful day. I tell my wife I love her every day, usually many times a day. I try to tell the people around me the things that I admire and appreciate about them. But remember that no matter how powerful those words are, their power can turn negative without affirmation through action as well. Don’t use words to turn relationship into a spectator sport. I’ve fallen into that trap too many times, and it’s tough to dig out of it. Life, and relationships, require you to get off the metaphorical (and physical) couch every once in a while.