If you watch prime-time TV or check the sales statistics on romance novels, you will have all the evidence you need that Western culture is obsessed with love. Yet despite all the talk about love, the reality is that thousands of children go to bed every night feeling unloved by their parents, and thousands of husbands and wives go to bed feeling unloved by their spouse.
Our culture is largely ignorant of the true nature of love and its effect on human relationships. Yet nothing holds more potential for changing the season of your marriage than learning the truth about love.
Part of the problem is that we use the word love rather loosely. Listen to any conversation on the street and you're likely to hear statements like these: "I love hot dogs." "I love the beach." "I love my baby." "I love the mountains." "I just love my new sports car." "I love my mother." "I love my dog." "I love the zoo." Is it any wonder, then, that when a husband says to his wife, "I love you, honey," she's not sure what to make of his statement?
I'm not going to challenge our society's casual use of the word love. Instead, I'm going to focus on the importance of love as an essential human need. Whether we're educated or uneducated, we know instinctively that children need to feel loved. I like to describe each child as having an emotional love tank. When the love tank is full – that is, when the child genuinely feels loved by the parents – the child grows up normal and well-adjusted.
But when the love tank is empty, the child grows up with many internal struggles. During the teenage years, these children will go looking for love, typically in all the wrong places. Much misbehavior among children and teenagers stems from an empty love tank.
The same is true of adults. Married or single, every adult has an emotional love tank. When we feel loved by people significant to us, life is beautiful. When our love tank is empty, we struggle emotionally. Much misbehavior among adults grows out of an empty love tank.
For us married folks, the person we would most like to have love us is our spouse. If we feel loved by our spouse, the world looks bright. But if our love tank is empty, the world begins to look rather dark.
Success in business, education or sports will not satisfy the longing of the human heart for emotional love. When emotional love evaporates, marriages slip into fall and then winter. Conversely, when emotional love is rekindled, the warm breezes of spring and summer return to the marriage. I want to focus on the nature of emotional love as it relates to marriage. This has the potential to change the emotional climate of your marriage.
It all begins with "the tingles." In the normal course of life, we meet someone who catches our attention. There is something about the way he or she looks, talks or acts that gives us a warm tingly feeling inside. The tingles are what motivate people to go out with each other.
Sometimes, on the first date, we lose the tingles. We find out something intolerable about the other person and the tingles dissipate. But with some people, every time we get together, it just gets tinglier and tinglier. Eventually, we find ourselves emotionally obsessed. We're quite certain that he or she is the most wonderful person we've ever met.
Everyone else will see the flaws, but we won't. Our parents may say, "Have you considered that he hasn't had a steady job in five years?" But we'll respond, "Give him a break. He's just waiting for the right opportunity." Our friends may ask, "Have you considered that she's been married five times before?" But we'll respond, "Those other guys were losers. This woman deserves to be happy, and I'm going to make her happy."
This stage of a romantic relationship can best be described as emotional obsession. We can't get the other person off our minds. We go to bed thinking about him, and we wake up thinking about him. All day long, we wonder what she's doing. Talking with her is the highlight of our day, and we want to spend as much time with her as possible.
This obsession leads to irrational thoughts such as, I'll never be happy unless we are together forever. Nothing else in life really matters. In this stage of love, differences are minimized or denied. All we know is that we're happy, we've never been happier, and we intend to be happy for the rest of our lives.
This euphoric stage of love does not require a lot of effort. We are swept along by a river of positive emotions. We are willing to do almost anything for the benefit of the other person.
It is during this time of emotional obsession that most people get married. They anticipate that they will continue to have these euphoric feelings for each other forever. They fail to understand that emotional obsession is only the initial stage of romantic love. (Psychologist and researcher Dorothy Tennov, in her classic book Love and Limerance, concluded that the average duration of this initial euphoria is two years.)
When we come down off the emotional high, we must make the transition to the next stage of love, which is much more intentional and requires a conscious effort to meet the emotional needs of the other person. Many couples fail to make this transition. Instead, they get the tingles for someone else, divorce and remarry, repeating the cycle with another mate. Sixty percent of those who remarry will experience a second divorce. And if perchance they try again, the divorce rate for third marriages is 75 percent.
The importance of learning how to make the transition from the obsessive stage to the intentional stage of love should be obvious. Just because we stay in a relationship does not mean that emotional love will continue to flow. The second stage of love is truly different from the first. The obsessive feelings we had for each other begin to fade, and we recognize other important pursuits in life besides pursuing each other. The illusions of perfection evaporate, and the words of our parents and friends return to our minds: "He hasn't had a steady job in five years." "She's been married five times before."
We start to wonder how we could have been so blind to reality. Differences in personality, interests and lifestyle now become obvious, whereas before we hardly noticed. The euphoria that led us to put each other first and to focus on each other's well-being has now dissipated, and we begin to focus on ourselves and to realize that our spouse is no longer meeting our needs.
We begin to request – and then demand – things from our mate, and when he or she refuses to meet our demands, we withdraw or lash out in anger. Our anger or withdrawal pushes our mate further away and makes it more difficult for him or her to express love to us.
Can such tarnished relationships be reborn? The answer is yes – a if couples become aware of the nature of love and learn how to express love in a language their mate can understand. Good intentions are not enough. We must also learn how to meet our spouse's emotional need for love.
People are different. What makes one person feel loved will not necessarily make another person feel loved. By nature, we tend to express love to others in the way we wish they would express love to us. When our spouse doesn't respond positively to our expressions of love, we get frustrated. The problem is not the sincerity of our love; the problem is that we are speaking the wrong love language. If we speak our own love language but not our mate's, we will fail to communicate.
I am often asked to explain the popularity of my book The Five Love Languages. I believe that the book has been successful because it has helped people learn to make the transition from obsessive love to intentional love; it has taught people how to discover and speak their spouse's love language and thus keep emotional love alive in their relationship.
Regardless of which season your marriage is now in, learning to speak your partner's love language will enhance your communication, fill your spouse's love tank and strengthen your relationship. If your marriage is in fall or winter, learning to speak your spouse's love language may be the key to turning your marriage around and heading forward into spring and summer.
After 30 years as a marriage counselor, I am convinced that there are five basic love languages – five ways to express love emotionally. Each person has a primary love language that we must learn to speak if we want that person to feel loved.
Words of Affirmation
One time when my wife and I were visiting our daughter and son-in-law and our two grandchildren, our son-in-law took the garbage out after dinner. When he walked back into the room where we were talking with our daughter, she looked up and said, "John, thanks for taking the garbage out."
Inside I said, "Yes!" because I knew the power of appreciation. I can't tell you how many men and women have sat in my office over the past 30 years and said to me, "I work my tail off every day, yet my spouse acts like I haven't done a thing. I never get a single word of appreciation."
If your spouse's primary love language is words of affirmation, your spoken praise and appreciation will fall like rain on parched soil. Before long, you will see new life sprouting in your marriage as your spouse responds to your words of love.
Acts of Service
Do you remember the old saying, "Actions speak louder than words"? For some people, that is particularly true of love. If acts of service is your spouse's primary love language, nothing will speak more deeply to him or her emotionally than simple acts of service.
Maxine, who had been married for 15 years, came to my office one day because she was frustrated with her marriage. Listen to what she said: "I don't understand David. Every day he tells me that he loves me, but he never does anything to help me. He just sits on the couch watching TV while I wash the dishes, and the thought never crosses his mind to help me. I'm sick of hearing 'I love you.' If he loved me, he would do something to help me."
Maxine's primary love language is acts of service (not words of affirmation), and even though her husband, David, loved her, he had never learned to express his love in a way that made her feel loved. However, after David and I talked and he read The Five Love Languages, he got the picture and started speaking Maxine's love language. In less than a month, her love tank was beginning to fill up, and their marriage moved from winter to spring.
The next time I talked to Maxine, she said, "It's wonderful. I wish we had come for counseling 10 years ago. I never knew about the love languages. I just knew I didn't feel loved."
In every society throughout human history, gift giving has been perceived as an expression of love. Giving gifts is universal, because there is something inside the human psyche that says if you love someone, you will give to him or her.
What many people do not understand is that for some people, receiving gifts is their primary love language. It's the thing that makes them feel loved most deeply. If you're married to someone whose primary love language is gift giving, you will make your spouse feel loved and treasured by giving gifts on birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and "no occasion" days.
The gifts need not be expensive or elaborate; it's the thought that counts. Even something as simple as a homemade card or a few cheerful flowers will communicate your love to your spouse. Little things mean a lot to a person whose primary love language is receiving gifts.
If your spouse's love language is quality time, giving him or her your undivided attention is one of the best ways you can show your love. Some men pride themselves on being able to watch television, read a magazine, and listen to their wives, all at the same time. That is an admirable trait, but it is not speaking the love language of quality time.
Instead, you must turn off the TV, lay the magazine down, look into your mate's eyes, and listen and interact. To your spouse, 20 minutes of your undivided attention – listening and conversing – is like a 20-minute refill of his or her love tank.
Men, if you really want to impress your wife, the next time she walks into the room while you are watching a sporting event, put the television on mute and don't take your eyes off her as long as she's in the room. If she engages you in conversation, turn the TV off and give her your undivided attention. You will score a thousand points and her love tank will be overflowing.
We have long known the emotional power of physical touch. That's why we pick up babies and touch them tenderly. Long before an infant understands the meaning of the word love, he or she feels loved by physical touch.
In marriage, the love language of physical touch includes everything from putting a hand on your mate's shoulder as you walk by, touching his or her leg as you're driving together, and holding hands while you're walking to kissing, embracing and sexual intercourse.
If physical touch is your spouse's primary love language, nothing communicates love more clearly than for you to take the initiative to reach out and touch your mate.
If the key to meeting your spouse's need for emotional love is learning to speak his or her love language, how can you discover what that love language is? It's simple. Listen to your spouse's complaints. Here are five common complaints and the love language that each reveals:
"You mean you didn't bring me anything? Did you even miss me while you were gone?" (receiving gifts)
"We never spend any time with each other anymore. We're like two ships passing in the dark." (quality time)
"I don't think you would ever touch me if I didn't initiate it." (physical touch)
"I can't do anything right around here. All you ever do is criticize. I can never please you." (words of affirmation)
"If you loved me, you would do something around here. You never lift a finger to help." (acts of service)
Typically, when our spouse complains, we get irritated. But he or she is actually giving us valuable information. Complaints often reveal the key to our spouse's inner longing for emotional love. If we learn our mate's primary love language – and speak it – we will have a happier spouse and a better marriage.
But what if your spouse's primary love language is something that isn't easy for you to do? What if you're not a touchy-feely person but your spouse's primary love language is physical touch? The answer is simple, though not necessarily easy: You learn to speak the language of physical touch. You learn to speak a new love language by trying.
At first it might be very difficult, but the second time will be easier, and the third time even easier. Eventually, you can become proficient in speaking your mate's love language; and if he or she reciprocates by speaking your language, the two of you will keep emotional love alive in your marriage.
My files are filled with letters from people who tell me that learning their spouse's primary love language revolutionized their marriage. For example, Rick, a 33-year-old truck driver who has been married for 12 years, wrote, "After I discovered [my wife's] love language, it helped me to understand why she had been saying that I didn't love her. I knew I loved her, and I told her all the time. The problem was that her love language is acts of service, and I never did anything to help her around the house. I guess I followed my dad's example – but then Mom and Dad never had a very good marriage, either. Now I try to do things for Brenda when I'm home. It has made a great difference in our marriage."
Rick's wife, Brenda, wrote, "We were having serious problems and were talking about separating. … Then Rick and I started talking about our relationship. I learned that his love language is words of affirmation. Here I had been criticizing him because I didn't feel loved by him, but all along I was only making him feel worse and didn't know it. Now he speaks my language and I speak his. We went from a very wintry season to a warm spring or summer season." Understanding your spouse's primary love language – and learning to speak it – can make a world of difference in your marriage.
What if your spouse is unwilling to read a book about marriage or discuss your marriage? With marriages in the fall and winter seasons, this is often the case. One spouse becomes concerned enough about the marriage to read a book, attend a seminar or go for counseling, while the other spouse is unwilling to do anything.
This is when unconditional love becomes exceedingly important. It is easy to love your spouse when your spouse is loving you. It is easy to say kind words to your spouse when he or she is treating you kindly. But even if your spouse is unwilling to try or to reciprocate, unconditional love means that you will choose to love your spouse in his or her primary love language.
Although unconditional love is difficult, it is the kind of love that God has for us. Romans 5:8 says that God loved us "while we were still sinners" and sent Christ to die for us. Scripture also says that we love God "because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Therefore, when you choose to love your spouse unconditionally, you are following God's example. And if you ask God, He will give you the ability to do it.
In Romans 5:5 the apostle Paul says, "God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit." Likewise, when you pour out your love by speaking your spouse's love language, you are doing the most emotionally powerful thing you can do. Your spouse desperately needs emotional love from you. As your spouse's love tank begins to fill, there is a good chance that he or she will begin to reciprocate.
A full love tank creates a positive atmosphere in which you and your spouse can talk about your differences more easily and negotiate solutions to your conflicts. I have seen many hard, cold men and women melt when they begin to receive love in their love language. Love is the most powerful weapon in the world for good. It can thaw the coldest of winters and bring the blossoms of spring to your marriage.