I was meeting with Ann, whose feelings of love for her husband, Glenn, had been killed through the years by his constant criticism and condemnation. After 10 years of marriage, her emotional energy was depleted and her self-esteem almost destroyed.
Was there hope for Ann's marriage? Could she love an unlovely husband? Would he ever respond in love to her?
Her friends told her she should leave him. "But Dr. Chapman, I just can't believe that's the right thing to do."
"I wish I could offer you an easy answer," I said. "Unfortunately, I can't. Both of the alternatives you mentioned, getting out or staying in, will likely bring you a great deal of pain.
"Before you make that decision, I do have one idea. I am not sure it will work, but I'd like you to try it. I know from what you have told me that your religious faith is important to you and that you have a great deal of respect for the teachings of Jesus. I want to read something that Jesus once said that I think has some application to your marriage." I read slowly and deliberately from Matthew 5:43-47:
I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you ... Do to others as you would have them do to you ... If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even "sinners" love those who love them.
"Ann, if you are willing, I would like to do an experiment. I would like to see what would happen if we would apply this principle to your marriage."
I went on to explain the concept that each of us has an inner "emotional tank." When the tank is as low as hers was, we have no love feelings toward our spouse. I told her that if we could learn to speak each other's primary "love language" (in other words, learn to express love the way our spouse needs), our emotional need could be met and positive feelings could be engendered again.
"Now, let's hypothesize that if you could speak Glenn's primary love language consistently for a six-month period, somewhere along the line his emotional need for love would begin to be met and he would begin to reciprocate love to you. You understand that this hypothesis places all the initiative in your hands."
Ann said that "quality time" was her primary love language. "In the early days when we spent time together and Glenn listened to me, we spent long hours talking together, doing things together. I really felt loved. More than anything, I wish that part of our marriage could return."
"And what do you think Glenn's primary love language is?" I asked.
"I think it is physical touch and especially the sexual part of the marriage. I know that when I felt more loved by him and we were more sexually active, he had a different attitude."
"Does he ever complain about the way you talk to him?"
"Well, he says I nag him all the time." She replied. "He also says that I don't support him, that I'm always against his ideas."
"Then, let's assume that 'Physical Touch' is his primary love language and 'Words of Affirmation' is his secondary love language."
We set up a plan for the next six months. First, I said, "Look for positive things in Glenn's life and give him verbal affirmation about those things. If you want to complain about something, write it down in your personal notebook."
Second, "Begin taking more initiative in physical touch and sexual involvement. Surprise him by being aggressive, not simply responding to his advances." We talked about the difficulty of doing this, and I said she would "probably have to rely heavily upon your faith in God in order to do this."
Third, Ann would begin making specific requests of him—that he play games with her, or spend time with her. "If he doesn't do it, fine. But when he does it, you will know that he is responding to your needs. In the process, you are teaching him your primary love language."
She began the experiment by telling Glenn that she wanted to be a better wife. "So if you have any suggestions as to how I could be a better wife, I want you to know that I am open to them." The first month, he was flippant and treated the whole thing lightly. But after the second month, he gave her positive feedback about her efforts.
In the last four months, Glenn responded positively to almost all of her requests, and her feelings for him began to change drastically. Glenn never came for counseling, but he did listen to some of my tapes and discussed them with Ann.
To this day, Glenn swears to his friends that I am a miracle worker. I know in fact that love is a miracle worker.
Adapted by permission from The Five Love Languages, copyright 1992 by Gary D. Chapman. All rights reserved.
1. It is hard work, but someone must be willing to be the first to break the cycle if a relationship is to be restored. Read “Can You Fall in Love Again With Your Spouse?”
2. Does it sometimes feel as if you and your spouse are speaking different languages? Dr. Gary Chapman brings you up to speed as he unpacks the five love languages in the FamilyLife Today® broadcast “Love Is an Attitude.”
3. Falling in love is easy. Staying in love—that's the challenge! Read Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages and learn the secrets to love that lasts.