Note: I am not a psychologist or a trained marriage counselor. I don’t even play one on TV! But I have been married for twenty five years. Between that and twenty-plus years in the pastorate, I’ve learned a few things about marriage that I’d like to share. You can read my first two articles in this series here and here.
The comedian Jim Gaffigan has a bit about the saying, “It ain’t brain surgery.” He speculates on what brain surgeons say instead. Perhaps, “It ain’t like trying to talk to women.” Then there’s the old joke about the guy who manages to conjure a genie, who offers him a wish. He says, “I’d like a bridge from California to Hawaii, so that I could drive there anytime I want.” The genie replies, “Come on. Do you know how impractical that is? Think of the wasted resources, not to mention what it would do to the environment. Choose something else.” So the man thinks a moment. “Well, I’ve always wanted to understand women…” The genie quickly says, “So you want two lanes or four on that bridge?” Just this morning, a friend sent me a clever saying in an email, “Women spend more time wondering what men are thinking than men do thinking.”
It’s conventional wisdom that men and women cannot possibly understand one another. People often validate this idea by saying, “After all, as the book says, Men Are from Mars, and Women Are from Venus.” I highly doubt these people have ever read said volume (full disclosure: neither have I), but they take that title as a documented fact. I say baloney. I’m not saying that I understand women—as if all women have the same thoughts, desires or goals. I am saying that it’s possible for a man to understand a woman, and vice-versa. Actually, without that understanding, it’s nearly impossible to have a happy, healthy marriage.
Perhaps you’re skeptical. You’ve looked with bafflement at the opposite gender for years, or perhaps you’re married and think that your spouse is the most inscrutable oddball on the planet. Maybe I am just a hopeless romantic. But I tend to believe there is something to the fact that in Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), the word used for sexual intercourse (the act that consummates a marriage) is a word that means “to know.” (As it happens, the Hebrew word is yada. Seinfeld fans might find that humorous) God didn’t create marriage as a relationship in which two people share a home, produce some offspring, and tolerate each other. It’s His desire that I truly know my wife and am known by her, in a way that isn’t true of any other person on earth.
How do we get there? Two books have helped me immensely in understanding my wife and the way I respond to her. The first is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. According to Chapman, every person has a primary “language” that helps them feel loved. That language is also the way they show love for others. If you understand your spouse’s love language, you then know how to make them feel loved. And, Chapman asserts, a spouse who truly feels loved will love you in return. The five love languages he identifies are:
- Words of affirmation
- Physical touch
- Acts of service
- Quality time
- Receiving gifts
I had a friend whose marriage was crumbling. He could not understand why his wife was so unhappy with him. “I bring her flowers constantly. We’ve got pots lined up in our kitchen cabinets from all the bouquets I’ve brought home to our apartment.” Gently, I said, “Maybe she doesn’t want flowers. Maybe she just wants you to try harder to get a job.” My guess was that his wife’s love language was something other than receiving gifts. It’s not that she hated the flowers; They just didn’t make her feel loved. Since reading Chapman’s book, I have found his ideas incredibly helpful in understanding my wife, and also my children and other people I spend regular time with.
The second book is Willard Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage. Harley is a long-time marriage therapist who saw many couples dealing with unfaithfulness on the part of one spouse or the other. In his experience, most affairs occurred because the straying spouse saw a chance to meet some key emotional need that was going unfulfilled in marriage. He compiled a list of the top five emotional needs men and women seek in these affairs, and based his book on helping couples understand and fulfill one another’s needs (hence creating “an affair-proof marriage). As Harley sees it, women seek the following emotional needs in marriage (The terms are his, but I’ve included explanations in my own words where I think they’re needed):
- Affection: Both physical (hugs, holding hands) and emotional (writing a note, arranging a date). Basically anything that says, “I care about you.”
- Conversation: Talking to her is important. Listening to her is even more so.
- Honesty and openness: She needs to know she can trust you, that you have no secrets from her.
- Financial support: Will you do all you can to provide for the family? Will you spend money with them, and not just your own desires, in mind?
- Family commitment: She wants her husband to put his wife and children first.
He sees the men’s needs as follows:
- Sexual fulfillment: He certainly can’t fulfill this need apart from you. At least, not as far as God is concerned.
- Recreational companionship: He wants his wife to enjoy his hobbies with him, or at least not resent them.
- An attractive spouse: He wants to be physically attracted to you.
- Domestic support: He wants an orderly home.
- Admiration: He needs a wife who believes in him even if no one else does.
You and I may quibble with Harley’s list. Perhaps you are a successful woman who scoffs at the idea of a man “providing” for you. Or you may be a man who lived comfortably for most of his adult life in a smelly bachelor pad, and you couldn’t care less about domestic support. Even so, my guess is that most of the items on the list resonate with you. It probably wouldn’t take you long to rank them in order of which needs you feel most profoundly. Discovering your spouse’s list gives you the answer to that awful question, “What do I need to do to make you happy?”
What it boils down to is something I say every time I officiate a wedding: Love is a choice. We usually speak of love as an emotion. Being “in love” is indeed an emotion, and a powerful one. If you’ve ever been in love, you remember the intoxication of it. But emotion won’t sustain a marriage. Love is a decision; it’s an act of the will. Interestingly, the Bible never says Jesus likes us. Instead, it says God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). There was nothing in us that compelled Jesus to do this. He loved us when were wholly unlovely. And that love was more than sentiment. He met our deepest need–the need for redemption—not with words but with an action. He gave Himself up so we could live. That is love. Hallelujah! By the way, I am fairly certain Jesus does like you; after all, Ephesians 2:10 says you are His masterpiece, created for good works which He prepared ahead of time (my favorite verse). But it wasn’t your sparkling intellect, your solid moral foundation, or your minty-fresh breath that led Jesus to die for you. He chose to do that, even though it wasn’t in His best interests to do so.
Therefore I, as a Christian husband, should choose to learn how my wife receives love. I should choose to learn what her main emotional needs are. This idea has helped me immensely in my own marriage. Now here are a few thoughts on how it can help you.
–How can you discover your spouse’s love language and emotional needs? Reading these books together and discussing them is a great step. But whether we read a book or not, we need to spend time together. Observe what makes him light up with joy, or what brings her down. It took me years to realize that my wife appreciates kind words, but they aren’t really what she is looking for from me. I could make some grand romantic gesture, but she’d rather I mow the yard without being asked. I could spend hours trying to sculpt my abs into a six-pack, but she’d prefer I spent those hours with our kids.
–Learn to receive love from your spouse in his/her language. It took me years to realize that Carrie expresses love in acts of service. Because that’s not my language, I didn’t adequately appreciate all the things she does for me and for our children. I always thought she just liked a clean house, a well-dressed family, and utilities that are paid on time. In reality, those were all ways of loving me. (Now that I think about it, what DO I contribute to our home?)
–Let your spouse be who he/she is. My friend who I mentioned earlier had a pre-conceived idea: “Women love to get flowers.” When I told him she may have different needs, he couldn’t accept that. Their marriage didn’t make it (though it certainly wasn’t all his fault). You may not understand why your husband loves golf so much. But chances are, you knew that when you married him. Why did you expect him to change? You may not understand why he hates your flannel pajamas; you know, the super-comfortable ones that Grandma gave you, that button up to the chin. Why does he care what you wear to bed? He wants to find you attractive; remember when that mattered to you? You may not understand why it hurts him when you criticize him. Aren’t men supposed to be tough and unfeeling? Sure, but since his emotional need is admiration, you can hurt him in a way no one else can. Instead of trying to change your spouse’s love language and emotional needs, accept them and choose to love them in those ways.
–Most of all, don’t focus on your own list, your own needs. If you choose to love your spouse in the way they feel loved, chances are very good they will return the favor. But even if they do, they won’t meet your needs perfectly. There is only One who can do that. And if they don’t even try (which is possible, since you are in fact married to a sinner), there is One who loves you in a way no human spouse ever could. That love brings joy that outstrips the best and worst of any marriage. More on that in a future post. Until then…choose to love.