How Dr. Harley Learned to Save Marriages

When I was 19, a married acquaintance in college told me his marriage was in trouble and asked for my advice. The advice I gave did not help. His marriage ended in divorce. Why couldn't I help? What was it about my friend's marriage that made divorce seem so inevitable?

It was 1960, and I was about to witness something that few expected - the beginning of what may turn out to be the end of the traditional nuclear family in America. The evidence for such a disaster accumulated over the next 20 years. The divorce rate would climb from about 15% to over 50%, and the percentage of single adults would go from 6.5% to 20%. While the rate of divorce finally stabilized at about 50% in 1980, the percentage of single adults would continue to climb right up to the present (currently about 30% and climbing), because fewer and fewer would be willing to commit themselves to one partner for life.

At the time, I had no way of knowing that my friend's marital failure was part of a trend that was about to overwhelm nuclear families. I thought that his failure was, at least in part, due to my inexperience. I blamed myself. I felt that I should have left it to an "expert."

But over the next few years, couples continued to ask for my advice regarding marriage, especially after I earned a Ph.D. degree in Psychology. After all, psychologists were supposed to know something about marriage. So I decided to learn enough to help these people. I didn't think it would be much of a challenge. After all, if our scientists knew enough to send people to the moon, surely they would know how to save marriages.

I read books on marital therapy, was supervised by "experts" in the field, and worked in a clinic that specialized in marital therapy, claiming to be the best in Minnesota. But I was still unable to save marriages. Almost everyone who came to me for help ended up like my college friend - divorced.

In my effort to overcome failure, I made a crucial discovery: I wasn't the only one failing to help couples. Almost everyone else working with me in the clinic was failing as well! My supervisor was failing, the director of the clinic was failing, and so were the other marriage counselors that worked with me. And then I made the most astonishing discovery of all: Most of the marital experts in America were also failing. It was very difficult to find anyone willing to admit their failure, but when I had access to actual cases, I couldn't find any therapist who could prove their own success or train others to be successful in saving marriages.

In fact, I learned that marital therapy had the lowest success rate of any form of therapy - in one study, I read that less than 25% of those surveyed felt that marriage counseling had helped. A higher percentage felt that counseling had done more harm than good.

What a challenge! Marriages were breaking up at an unprecedented rate, and no one knew how to stop it! So I made it my own personal ambition to find the answer, and I looked for that answer not in books and scholarly articles, but rather among those who came to me for answers - couples about to divorce. I stopped counseling and started listening to spouses explain why they were ready to throw in the towel. What did they have when they decided to marry that they lost somewhere along the way? I asked each couple what they thought it would it take to be happily married again.

I knew that I had not yet learned how to save marriages. So I would explain that inability to the couples I counseled, and because of it, didn't charge them for my time. I taught psychology to earn a living, and worked with couples in my free time.

By 1975, I had finally discovered why I and so many other marital therapists were having trouble saving marriages -- we did not understand what made a marriage work. We were all so preoccupied with what caused them to fail, that we overlooked what helped them succeed. Many marriage counselors, myself included, thought that a lack of communication was causing these marriages to fail. So my goal had been to teach these couples how to communicate, to stop fighting, and to resolve conflicts.

But when I asked couples why they had married in the first place, it wasn't because of great communication. It was because they were in love. And over the years, they had somehow lost their love for each other. In fact, some had even come to hate each other.

When I asked couples what it would take for them to be happily married again, most couldn't imagine that ever happening. But I persisted, and as the couples reflected on it, they came to the realization that they would need to be in love again.

The poor communication that was apparent in many of these failed marriages had contributed to their loss of love, but it was also a symptom of their lost love. Couples who fall out of love tend to fight instead of resolve their conflicts the right way -- with care and respect. So if I wanted to save marriage, I would have to go beyond improving communication -- I would have to learn how to restore love.

With this insight I began to attack emotional issues rather than rational issues. My primary goal in marital therapy changed from resolving conflicts to restoring love. If I knew how to restore love, I reasoned, then conflicts might not be as much of an issue.

My background as a psychologist taught me that learned associations trigger most of our emotional reactions. Whenever something is presented repeatedly with a physically induced emotion, it tends to trigger that emotion all by itself. For example, if you flash the color blue along with an electric shock, and the color red with a soothing back rub, eventually the color blue will tend to upset you and the color red will tend to relax you.

Applying the same principle to the feeling of love, I theorized that love might be nothing more than a learned association. If someone were to be present often enough when I was feeling particularly good, the person's presence in general might be enough to trigger that good feeling - something we have come to know as the feeling of love.

I could not have been more correct in my analysis. By encouraging each spouse to try to do whatever it took to make each other happy, and avoid doing what made each other unhappy, that feeling of love would be restored. The first couple I counseled with this new approach fell in love and their marriage was saved.

From that point on, every time I saw a couple, I simply asked them what the other could do that would make them the happiest, and whatever it was, that was their first assignment. Of course, not every couple really knew what would make them happy, and not every spouse was willing to try it. But as I perfected my method, I began to understand what it was that husbands and wives needed from each other to trigger the feeling of love. And I would help them identify what each of them needed. I also became more effective in motivating them to meet whatever need was identified, even when they didn't feel like doing it at first. Before long, I was helping almost every couple fall in love again and avoid divorce. My method proved to be so successful, that I quit teaching psychology, and started counseling full-time.

As you can imagine, there were more couples wanting help from me than I could possibly counsel. Ten years after I began using this method, I finally wrote my first book describing it, His Needs, Her Needs. Over three million copies have been sold so far, and it has been translated into twenty-two languages. Surveys have found it to be one of the best self-help book ever written.

To help you fully understand this unique and groundbreaking method I developed to save marriages, I will describe it to you in a series of basic concepts. By the time you finish reading these concepts, you will be in a position to re-create love in your marriage. And if you do, you will have turned a potential disaster into a personal triumph!

But before you begin to read each of them in my somewhat expanded and detailed form, you may want first get a general overview. So I have summarized them all for you in A Brief Summary of Dr. Harley's Basic Concepts.

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