Love is the most important word in the English language—and the most confusing. Both secular and religious thinkers agree that love plays a central role in life. We are told that “love is a many-splendored thing” and that “love makes the world go round.” Thousands of books, songs, magazines, and movies are peppered with the word. Numerous philosophical and theological systems have made a prominent place for love. And the founder of the Christian faith wanted love to be the distinguishing characteristic of His followers.
Psychologists have concluded that the need to feel loved is a primary human emotional need. For love, we will climb mountains, cross seas, traverse desert sands, and endure untold hardships. Without love, mountains become unclimbable, seas uncrossable, deserts unbearable, and hardships our plight in life. The Christian apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, exalted love when he indicated that all human accomplishments that are not motivated by love are, in the end, empty. He concluded that in the last scene of the human drama, only three characters will remain: “faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Filling the Love Tank
Child psychologists affirm that every child has certain basic emotional needs that must be met if he is to be emotionally stable. Among those emotional needs, none is more basic than the need for love and affection, the need to sense that he or she belongs and is wanted. With an adequate supply of affection, the child will likely develop into a responsible adult. Without that love, he or she will be emotionally and socially retarded.
I liked the metaphor the first time I heard it: “Inside every child is an ’emotional tank’ waiting to be filled with love. When a child really feels loved, he will develop normally but when the love tank is empty, the child will misbehave. Much of the misbehavior of children is motivated by the cravings of an empty ‘love tank.'” I was listening to Dr. Ross Campbell, a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of children and adolescents.
As I listened, I thought of the hundreds of parents who had paraded the misdeeds of their children through my office. I had never visualized an empty love tank inside those children, but I had certainly seen the results of it. Their misbehavior was a misguided search for the love they did not feel. They were seeking love in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.
I remember Ashley, who at thirteen years of age was being treated for a sexually transmitted disease. Her parents were crushed. They were angry with Ashley. They were upset with the school, which they blamed for teaching her about sex. Why would she do this? they asked.
In my conversation with Ashley, she told me of her parents’ divorce when she was six years old. “I thought my father left because he didn’t love me,” she said. “When my mother remarried when I was ten, I felt she now had someone to love her, but I still had no one to love me. I wanted so much to be loved. I met this boy at school. He was older than me, but he liked me. I couldn’t believe it. He was kind to me, and in a while I really felt he loved me. I didn’t want to have sex, but I wanted to be loved.”
Ashley’s “love tank” had been empty for many years. Her mother and stepfather had provided for her physical needs but had not realized the deep emotional struggle raging inside her.
An Adult Need for Love
The emotional need for love, however, is not simply a childhood phenomenon. That need follows us into adulthood and into marriage. The “in love” experience temporarily meets that need, but it is inevitably a “quick fix” and has a limited and predictable life span. After we come down from the high of the “in love” obsession, the emotional need for love resurfaces because it is fundamental to our nature. It is at the center of our emotional desires. We needed love before we “fell in love,” and we will need it as long as we live.
The need to feel loved by one’s spouse is at the heart of marital desires. A man said to me recently, “What good is the house, the cars, the place at the beach, or any of the rest of it if your wife doesn’t love you?” Do you understand what he was really saying? “More than anything, I want to be loved by my wife.” Material things are no replacement for human, emotional love. A wife says, “He ignores me all day long and then wants to jump in bed with me. I hate it.” She is not a wife who hates sex; she is a wife desperately pleading for emotional love.
Something in our nature cries out to be loved by another. Isolation is devastating to the human psyche. That is why solitary confinement is considered the cruelest of punishments. At the heart of mankind’s existence is the desire to be intimate and to be loved by another. Marriage is designed to meet that need for intimacy and love. That is why the ancient biblical writings spoke of the husband and wife becoming “one flesh.” That did not mean that individuals would lose their identity; it meant that they would enter into each other’s lives in a deep and intimate way. The New Testament writers challenged both the husband and the wife to love each other. From Plato to Peck, writers have emphasized the importance of love in marriage.
But if love is important it is also elusive. I have listened to many married couples share their secret pain. Some came to me because the inner ache had become unbearable. Others came because they realized that their behavior patterns or the misbehavior of their spouse was destroying the marriage. Some came simply to inform me that they no longer wanted to be married. Their dreams of “living happily ever after” had been dashed against the hard walls of reality. Again and again I have heard the words “Our love is gone, our relationship is dead. We used to feel close, but not now. We no longer enjoy being with each other. We don’t meet each other’s needs.” Their stories bear testimony that adults as well as children have “love tanks.”
Could it be that deep inside hurting couples exists an invisible “emotional love tank” with its gauge on empty? Could the misbehavior, withdrawal, harsh words, and critical spirit occur because of that empty tank? If we could find a way to fill it, could the marriage be reborn? With a full tank would couples be able to create an emotional climate where it is possible to discuss differences and resolve conflicts? Could that tank be the key that makes marriage work?
Those questions sent me on a long journey. The journey has taken me not only through twenty years of marriage counseling but into the hearts and minds of hundreds of couples throughout America. From Seattle to Miami, couples have invited me into the inner chamber of their marriages, and we have talked openly.
I am convinced that keeping the emotional love tank full is as important to a marriage as maintaining the proper oil level is to an automobile. Running your marriage on an empty “love tank” may cost you even more than trying to drive your car without oil. What you are about to read has the potential of saving thousands of marriages and can even enhance the emotional climate of a good marriage. Whatever the quality of your marriage now, it can always be better.
Adapted from The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Published by Northfield Publishing. Copyright © 1992, 1995 by Gary D. Chapman. Used with permission.