How to Create Your Own Plan to Resolve Conflicts
and Restore Love to Your Marriage
Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
Without an effective plan of action, it's unlikely that you will achieve your objectives in life -- and that's particularly true of marital objectives. Yet, marriage is an area of our lives where effective planning is often regarded as unnecessary. Couples usually believe that they should be guided by their instincts whenever they have a conflict.
Regarding emotional needs in a marriage, most spouses believe that couples should do for each other what they "feel" like doing. If there is no interest in meeting a particular need, it should simply go unmet. The idea that a spouses should create a plan to become experts at meeting each other's most important emotional needs, whether or not there is "interest" in meeting those needs, seems to go against marital intuition.
Intuition also prevails in most couples' efforts to resolve conflicts. Instead of resolving their marital conflicts by creating and implementing a well conceived plan, they revert to their primitive instincts -- demands, disrespect and anger -- to try to resolve their conflicts. These instincts not only fail to provide them with long-term solutions, but they also destroy the feeling of love. Because couples don't know any better, they keep using demands, disrespect and anger to try to resolve their marital conflicts until their love for each other turns into hate.
The purpose of the Marriage Builders? web site is to help you to create and implement a plan to resolve your conflicts in a way that will restore and sustain your love for each other. While many of my suggestions run counter to intuition, hundreds of thousands of couples have found that they work if they are willing to create a plan using my Basic Concepts. My Basic Concepts introduce you to my perspective on marriage, and how I go about creating plans that help make marriages successful. Then, my Q&A Columns give you examples of how to use my Basic Concepts to help create plans that solve a variety of marital problems. I also offer a Forum where you can discuss your situation with others who are creating plans that resolve conflicts and restore love to their marriages. Finally, if all else fails, I provide telephone counseling to those who feel they need special help with the creation and implementation of a plan to overcome their marital problems.
Ultimately, I hope you will create a plan to resolve your conflicts and restore love to your marriage. And then, of course, I hope you follow that plan so that you will actually experience the marriage I believe all couples should have. Without such a plan and its implementation, it's unlikely that you will achieve these important objectives. Insight into your problem is an important beginning, and my Basic Concepts will help give you that insight. But without action, insight is useless.
Restoring Love versus Resolving Conflicts
Before I discuss with you some of the details of a well-conceived plan to resolve conflicts and restore your love for each other, I will focus attention on the highest priority of such a plan -- restoring love.
I know of no marriage, including my own, that is free of conflict. That's because every couple is made up of two distinctly different people, with different experiences, interests and emotional predispositions. Regardless of the compatibility a couple creates in marriage, a husband and wife will always have somewhat different perspectives, and those differences will create conflict. Conflicts over money, careers, in-laws, sex, child rearing, and a host of other common marital issues are part of the experience of being married.
Some couples feel that if they could only rid themselves of certain conflicts, they would be happy together. But I've discovered that marriages can be terrific in spite of conflicts, even when some of them are never fully resolved. The difference between couples who live in marital bliss and those who regret ever having met each other is not found in whether or not they are free of conflict -- it's found in whether or not they are in love with each other.
From my years of experience trying to save marriages, I have come to the conclusion that the goal of restoring and sustaining love in marriage is much more important than the goal of resolving conflicts. Ultimately, of course, both goals are important, but by making love my highest priority, I found myself rejecting many popular approaches to conflict resolution because they tend to sacrifice a couple's love for each other. The way I now encourage couples to resolve their conflicts is to only use procedures that will also build their love.
Most marriage counselors are so focused on conflict resolution that they forget about building a couple's love for each other. But it's easy to understand why they tend to ignore the feelings of love -- the couples they see usually want help in resolving their conflicts, not restoring their love. It's the couples themselves that usually fail to see the importance of being in love. And when the loss of love really is the issue, couples rarely believe it can be restored, at least to the level it once was. They think that if their conflicts are resolved, and they are given the freedom to create independent lifestyles, they will be able to survive their marriage. They feel that all marriages eventually lose passion, but when that happens a husband and wife can still remain married if they are "mature" enough.
If you have seen a marriage counselor, and have been disappointed with the results, it's probably because you've spent all of your time trying to resolve your marital conflicts instead of restoring your love for each other. Even if you made progress in resolving some of your conflicts, you still may have been unhappy with your marriage. I receive letters regularly from those who find that they want to divorce in spite of a peaceful relationship. Even when a husband and wife are each other's best friends, they often divorce when the passion is gone.
That's one of the most confusing aspects of popular approaches to martial therapy, and it should raise a red flag to those who use them. When the goals of conflict resolution are achieved in counseling, why does the couple often divorce anyway? There seems to be something more to marriage than just resolving conflicts successfully.
Don't get me wrong, though. I believe that conflict resolution is important in marriage, and I go to a great deal of trouble to help couples resolve their conflicts. But couples who are happily married do more than resolve their conflicts, they also preserve their feeling of love for each other. And without being in love, marriage just doesn't seem right.
When a couple asks me to help them with their marriage, unresolved conflicts usually abound. And they present their marital problems to me as a litany of failures to resolve those conflicts. But as I probe the depth of their despair, conflicts are not usually the greatest source of their hopelessness. One spouse, and sometimes both of them, tell me that it is their lost feeling of love and passion for the other that bothers them the most. They don't believe that feeling will ever return, and without that feeling, they do not want to be married to their spouse. Their greatest feeling of hopelessness is about their lost love, not their inability to resolve conflicts.
That's why I learned early in my experience as a marriage counselor that restoring the feeling of love was far more important than resolving marital conflicts. In order to be completely happy with their marriage, the couple must find the love for each other that they lost. Since the approaches to conflict resolution I was taught actually caused a loss of love, I had to reject most of the training I had received as a marriage counselor, and create an entirely new system, one that would resolve conflicts and restore love at the same time.
The core concept of my new system was the "Love Bank." It helped me show the couples I counseled how their love for each other was created and destroyed. This is how I explained this important concept to these couples:
Each of us has a Love Bank and everyone we know has a separate account. It's the way our emotions keep track of the way people treat us. When treated well by someone, and we associate that person with good feelings, love units are deposited into his or her account in our Love Bank. But when treated badly by that person, love units are withdrawn from the Love Bank. When a person's balance is high, we like that person. But if a person withdraws more love units than he or she deposits, and the balance is in the red, we dislike that person.
The feeling of love is experienced when the Love Bank balance reaches a certain threshold. When enough love units are deposited to break through that threshold (I call it the "romantic love" threshold), we are in love with whoever holds that account in our Love Bank. But when the balance falls below that threshold, the feeling of being "in love" is lost. And when the Love Bank withdrawals exceed deposits enough to break through a certain negative threshold, we hate the person holding that account.
Our emotional reactions to people -- liking and disliking, loving and hating -- are not determined by will, they are determined by Love Bank balances. And Love Bank balances are determined by the way people treat us.
Once you understand the role of the Love Bank in determining your feelings for each other in marriage, you become aware of the fact that your spouse's feelings for you are determined by how you have been treating your spouse. If you want your spouse to be in love with you, you must deposit enough love units to break through the romantic love threshold. If your spouse wants you to be in love with him or her, your spouse must deposit enough love units into your Love Bank.
Almost everything that you and your spouse do is either depositing or withdrawing love units. Since most of what you do is by habit, repeated again and again, your habits either deposit love units continually, or they withdraw them continually. That's why your habits play such a crucial role in the creation or destruction of your love for each other.
So the feeling of love can last a lifetime for a couple if they apply two lessons: 1) avoid withdrawing love units and 2) keep depositing them. It's just that simple. All it takes is maintaining Love Bank balances above the romantic love threshold.
Creating a Plan to Restore Love and Resolve Conflicts
Throughout my professional career, I have helped couples create a plan to build Love Bank balances. After helping literally thousands of couples prepare and execute these plans, I got around to writing books on the subject. That way, couples could restore their love for each other by simply following my advice in a book, rather than consulting with me personally. The books I wrote help couples create a plan that apply these two lessons that I just described to their marriages.
I wrote Love Busters to help couples with the first lesson: avoiding the withdrawal of love units by learning to identify and eliminate destructive behavior that I call "Love Busters." I wrote His Needs, Her Needs to help couples with the second lesson: depositing love units by identifying and learning the best ways to make each other happy -- meeting each others' most important emotional needs.
These two books, Love Busters and His Needs, Her Needs, contain contracts, questionnaires, inventories, worksheets and other forms that couples use to create a plan of action. But they're reduced in size and often incomplete in these books because of space limitations.
In response to many requests for the full-sized forms, I compiled a workbook, Five Steps to Romantic Love. It contains not only the forms described in my two books, but also many others that I have used to help couples with their plan to create and sustain romantic love.
I have grouped these forms into a five-step sequence that can guide your own personal plan to restore love to your marriage. They will also help you resolve conflicts, but you will learn to resolve them in a way that sustains your love.
The First Step in building romantic love is to make a commitment to do just that. Problems are not solved by chance: Chance creates problems. So if you want to keep love in your marriage, you must commit yourselves to that purpose. I designed the form, Agreement to Overcome Love Busters and Meet the Most Important Emotional Needs, to spell out very clearly what it takes to guarantee romantic love. In essence, it commits you to follow the remaining four steps.
The Second Step is to identify habits that threaten to destroy romantic love. As I explain in the first chapter of Love Busters, it's pointless to build romantic love if you persist in habits that undermine your effort. I designed the Analysis of Love Busters Questionnaire to help you identify these destructive habits. When you and your spouse have accurately completed this questionnaire, you'll know how you've been destroying romantic love.
The Third Step is to create and execute a plan that eliminates the Love Busters you identified in the second step. Chapters two through six in Love Busters introduce and describe each of the five Love Busters. They also suggest methods to help you eliminate them. Most of the forms in this section of the workbook are described in these chapters and are designed to help you overcome Love Busters systematically.
There are three forms to help you overcome each Love Buster: First there is an inventory to identify the bad habits. Then there is a form to document the strategy you've chosen to eliminate them. Finally, a worksheet helps you document progress toward your goal.
The most common Love Busters -- anger, disrespect and demands -- are the way we instinctively go about trying to resolve marital conflicts. But these approaches to problem solving are not only ineffective, they also destroy the feeling of love. In the second half of Love Busters, I show how conflicts should be resolved, by finding a solution that takes the interests and feelings of both spouses into account simultaneously. Once you learn to abandon anger, disrespect and demands, and search for solutions that take the feelings of both of you into account, you will find conflicts much easier to resolve. But even while they are unresolved, you will remain in love with each other until you find a solution.
When you've conquered Love Busters, you're ready for the Fourth Step to romantic love: Identifying the most important emotional needs.
The way to deposit the most love units is to meet the most important emotional needs. It's when these needs are met that love units cascade into the Love Bank and romantic love blossoms. The Analysis of Emotional Needs Questionnaire, found in His Needs, Her Needs, is printed in a larger, more convenient form in the workbook. It's designed to help you identify and communicate your most important emotional needs to each other.
The Fifth Step to romantic love is learning to meet the needs you identified in step four. There's a chapter in His Needs, Her Needs that describes each of the ten most common emotional needs (chapters 3-12). Methods I've used to help couples learn to meet these needs are also included in these chapters. The forms I use to help couples achieve these goals are printed in the workbook.
These forms are generally arranged in a logical sequence. First, behavior likely to meet each need is identified in an inventory. Second, a strategy to learn to meet the need is planned and documented. Third, progress toward the achievement of the goal is recorded on a worksheet.
The forms in Five Steps to Romantic Love will help you 1) make a commitment to create and sustain romantic love, 2) identify habits that destroy romantic love, 3) overcome those Love Busters, 4) identify the most important emotional needs and 5) learn to meet them. They are designed to turn insight into action. Insight is good place to begin, but it's what you do with that insight that ultimately solves your problem.
If you can complete these five steps to romantic love, you will have created and implemented your own plan to restore love to your marriage. These forms found in the workbook will help you understand what you need to do to create a fulfilling marriage. All you need is the motivation to carry out your own plan.
But if you cannot follow your own program as evidenced by your failure to complete assignments, then I suggest that you find a therapist who can help motivate you to achieve these goals you have set for yourselves. Bring the worksheets found in Five Steps to Romantic Love with you when you consult your therapist, and have him or her guide you to a successful completion.
In your effort to restore and sustain romantic love, you will discover a new way to resolve your marital conflicts. You will look for solutions that deposit love units into both of your Love Banks simultaneously. Solutions that make one of you happy at the other's expense (win-lose solutions), will not build your love, but rather will cause one spouse to lose love for the other. So you will learn to continue negotiating until you have found solutions that meet with your mutual agreement (win-win solutions). That way you both deposit love units whenever a problem is solved.
You will learn to negotiate without the Love Busters, anger, disrespect and demands. That way the process of coming to an agreement will deposit love units along with the solution itself. Sadly, many couples use Love Busters as a way to try to come to an agreement, making the agreement much more difficult and causing a loss of love every time they try to resolve a conflict.
Sustained romantic love is a litmus test of your care and protection of each other. Care is nothing more than meeting each other's important emotional needs and protection is accommodating each other's feelings in what you do each day. Your marriage will be passionate and fulfilling if both you and your spouse create and follow a plan that guarantees care and protection. It's well worth the effort.