Marriage Enrichment for the Love of Christ

Willard Harley’s “Love Bank” is so simple, even a cave man like me can understand it. You don’t have to be a Christian to make the things in Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs work in your marriage. If, however, you are a Christian, these things are pretty basic components of living in Christ-like love with the one who shares your bed. There may be more to a Christian marriage than this, but there’s certainly not less.

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In nearly two decades of serving as an Army chaplain, I’ve had many occasions to lead marriage enrichment events of various sorts for members of my unit. We’ve talked about about some pretty basic things like improving communications, working through conflict, understanding your spouse and so forth. I’ve used and adapted material from a number of sources over the years. I went to seminary and entered the ministry during the heyday of the “pastoral counselor” model of ministry, so this kind of thing has been part of my pastoral identity from the beginning. The Army built on that and provided me with some additional training in a variety of family life models and marriage enrichment approaches. The Army’s current “Strong Bonds” programs are built on a number of research-validated approaches to marriage education and skill building.

I’m still something of a one-trick pony, however. When I’m not conducting a Strong Bonds event, I tend to fall back on Willard Harley’s approach in His Needs, Her Needs and Love Busters. You can find Harley’s description of his basic concepts at Marriage Builders. Harley’s “Love Bank” is so simple, even a cave man like me can understand it.

His Needs, Her Needs is built around ten emotional needs that different folks prioritize differently:

  • Affection
  • Sexual Fulfillment
  • Conversation
  • Recreational Companionship
  • Honesty and Openness
  • Physical Attractiveness
  • Financial Support
  • Domestic Support
  • Family Commitment
  • Admiration

Meeting your spouse’s felt-needs makes his/her “Love Bank” balance go up and makes them feel more satisfied with the relationship. There are of course things that you can do to with draw “love units” from “love bank,” and Harley calls these “love busters.”

  • Selfish Demands
  • Disrespectful Judgments
  • Angry Outbursts
  • Annoying Habits
  • Independent Behavior
  • Dishonesty

So, in Harley’s model, it’s pretty simple if you want a happy marriage: do more of the things that put “love units” in the “love bank” and fewer of the things that reduces the balance. To do that, you have to know your spouse’s felt needs (communication), come to agreement where there are differences (conflict) and make behavioral changes to give the relationship the attention it needs. Pretty basic stuff, right? And it works whether your a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, an atheist or anything else.

So, for my units I don’t conduct Christian marriage education; I conduct marriage education, period.

But wait … that’s not the whole story. Harley’s books are published by Revell, a Christian publisher, but you’d have to look long and hard to find a Christian reference on Harley’s web-site. His approach to marriage comes out of his clinical training and experience, but it’s also an expression of his Christian faith. Similarly, some of my other favorite marriage enrichment programs have a secular tone but are written by Christian authors. None of these programs is an attempt to “sneak in” Christian teaching to a secular audience unless things like a commitment to open communications, healthy conflict management, understanding your spouse and taking marriage seriously are exclusively Christian values. It shouldn’t be surprising that Christians, for whom marriage is important, should use the tools of the social sciences to find out what makes good marriages work.

So why do I as a Christian chaplain teach an essentially secular form of marriage education to secular audiences in the Army? First, because I think it’s a loving thing to do. It’s good for Soldiers and their spouses to have happy, healthy marriages. When strong, successful marriages are the rule rather than the exception, that’s good for the world, too. But second, and just as important, is that I believe the things I teach are expressions of Christ-like love whether or not I attach the word “Christian” to them.

Why should I take the time and energy to listen to my wife? If I am to love her as Christ loved the church, maybe she is important enough to give her my full attention. If I am to love her as Christ loves her, maybe I need to know her as fully as I can.

Why should I use effective conflict management techniques with my wife? If Christ died for her, maybe my first goal in conflict shouldn’t be to repay her for the harm I think I’ve suffered, to destroy her, injure her or defeat her. Maybe my goal should be to maintain the unity of Christ’s peace in my home and seek wholeness and happiness for my wife.

Why should I try to meet my wife’s needs and not simply my own? Only because this is at least as true about my relationship with my wife as it is about my relationship with other people:

Philippians 2:3-8  Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  (4)  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  (5)  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  (6)  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  (7)  but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (8)  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

You don’t have to be a Christian to make the things in Harley’s model work in your marriage. If, however, you are a Christian, these things are pretty basic components of living in Christ-like love with the one who shares your bed. There may be more to a Christian marriage than the things I teach in unit-focused marriage education, but there’s certainly not less.