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The Love Doctor

Feeling unloved? Author and counselor Gary Chapman reveals a simple prescription that works wonders.

Gary Chapman is a counselor, but he still reminds me of my old football coach. After we'd lose a game, my coach would tell us we needed to concentrate on the fundamentals. When it comes to getting your marriage out of a slump, Chapman draws up the same game plan.

In fact, there's a second similarity between Chapman and my old coach. During practice, when a player would complain about being hot, tired, or thirsty, my coach would consel: "Suck it up!" Chapman uses nicer language, but he offers basically the same advice: Do whatever it takes to meet your mate's needs, whether you feel like it or not.

In his New York Times bestselling book The Five Love Languages and his most recent book Things I Wish I'd Known Before We Got Married (both Northfield), Chapman says you can learn to love someone, even if you feel like that person has stopped loving you. It boils down to one fundamental skill—using the language that best communicates love to your spouse.

People generally get married because they can't bear the thought of not spending the rest of their lives together. If couples start out with so much passion, why does loving each other become such a challenge later on?

Part of it is that when these strong emotions begin to die down, couples mistakenly think they don't love each other as much as they used to. They confuse emotions with love.

But isn't love a pretty emotional thing?

Sure, but love isn't dependent on emotions. Love is what you do and say, not what you feel.

Still, you have a problem if you no longer feel the same amount of love you used to. So what do you recommend?

We all need to do a better job of communicating love, which is a challenge since people usually marry their opposite. I've spoken to large groups of couples all around the country, and I've counseled hundreds of others. And in all the couples I've talked to, I have seldom run across a husband and wife who used and understood the same language of love.

What makes people so different in the way they express love?

I don't know if it's something we learn in childhood or a trait we're born with. But we all have a primary love language that shows up early in life. By the time your kids are five or six, you can begin to see how they express love. If your son is coming up and saying, "Oh, Mommy, let's sit down and read," then he's asking for quality time. Or if your daughter is always hugging you, her language is physical touch. It really doesn't matter how or when we develop a love language, the important thing is to identify what works for those you love, and then to start doing it.

Why aren't more of us dong what works?

Most people express love in the way that comes most naturally to them, and we assume our mate recognizes those actions as expressions of love. But if our mate speaks a different language, most of the things we're doing just won't communicate. You end up with both spouses expressing love and wondering why the other one doesn't acknowledge it. At the same time, they're both wondering why their mate isn't doing any loving things for them.

What are the languages of love?

Based on case studies of the couples I have counseled over the years, certain themes are repeated. And those themes indicate that people give and receive love in five different ways: sharing quality time; physical touch; expressing words of affirmation; giving and receiving gifts; and performing acts of service.

Can you give an example of each of these languages?

Let's start with words of affirmation. It simply means making statements—either spoken or written—that show you value your spouse. Statements such as "You look nice today." "I love you." "Thanks for taking the garbage out." These are statements that focus on something your spouse has done or something he or she is.

The second language, giving and receiving gifts, is pretty self-explanatory. You know the old saying "It's the thought that counts." But it's not the thought left in your head that counts, it's the gift that came out of the thought. It doesn't have to be expensive; it can be anything that shows your spouse you had him or her in mind when you selected the gift.

What are examples of the other language?

Acts of service involve doing anything you know your spouse would like you to do. It could be cooking a meal, washing the dishes, vacuuming floors or putting gas in the car.

The fourth language is quality time, which means giving your spouse your undivided attention. It could be sitting on the couch together, talking; going out to eat together; or taking a walk.

The last one, physical touch, includes things like hugs, backrubs, holding hands and kissing. Some men jump to the conslusion that their love language is physical touch because they have such a strong sex drive. But I'm referring to nonsexual touch, like resting your hand on your spouse's leg while you're driving.

If a lot of guys wrongly assume their language is physical touch, does that mean it's not all that easy to identify your own love language?

If you give it some thought, you can pin it down. First, ask yourself how you tend to express love. You may do all five from time to time. But if you think about it, you'll find one that is predominant.

The second clue is to ask yourself, "What do I gripe about the most?" If you tend to complain "We don't ever spend any time together," then your love language probably is quality time.

The third question is: "What do I request most frequently from my husband or wife?" If you often say, "Honey, remember to bring me something back from your business trip," you like to receive gifts. Put these three clues together and you'll determing your love language.

Now to the hard part. How can we identify our spouses' love language?

You use the three-step process. You ask, "How does my spouse express love to me most often?" Then, "What does my spouse request from me the most?" And finally, "What does my spouse complain about?" The answers will tell you your mate's language.

If both spouses have been feeling unloved, how does your approach help them get back on track?

It depends on why they are feeling distant. If there has been infidelity, physical abuse, alcoholism or drug abuse, you need to do a lot more than just learn a new way to express love. Those problems call for professional counseling. But if your problems are less serious, learning to speak your mate's language will create a climate that makes it easier to work on other issues. Expressing love is not the whole solution, but it's a critical part of any solution.

If you've been feeling unloved, what would motivate you to learn a foreign language just so you can love someone you fell isn't bothering to love you?

Motivation is important, but I never said this was easy. People have all kinds of reasons for not wanting to do this. They say "it's just not me." But there are a lot of things we don't like to do; and there are plenty of things that don't come naturally. But we learn to do them anyway.

One man told me he had been married 17 years and had never know how to show his wife he loved her. Then he realized her language was receiving gifts. But he didn't have the foggiest idea how to buy the right gifts. So he asked his sister to help him pick out some things for his wife. This guy realized he needed to learn a new behavior, so he went out and found the help he needed.

What do you suggest for people who have trouble putting their feelings into words?

When people tell me, "I didn't grow up in a home where we did that sort of thing. I'm just not a verbal person," I often respond, "So what?" I know it's difficult, but you can learn to do it. Whenever you hear someone pay a compliment, for example, write it down. Or as you read books or magazie articles, pick out expressions of love and start making a list. Then stand in front of a mirror and read your list out loud. After a while, it will begin to feel more comforable.

Then, of course, you start saying these things to your wife or husband. Once you do it a few times it becomes much easier.

I can hear people saying, "Gary Chapman is one to talk. He's a marriage expert. This stuff comes easily to him!"

The truth is, some of these things don't come easily for me. My wife, Karolyn, and I had terrible struggles the first few years of our marriage. It's terrible to be married for three or four years and lose all your feelings of love for each other.

How did you rekindle your love?

I started studying the life of Jesus, and I saw how much of a servant he was to his followers. That's when the concept of a husband being a servant/leader began to dawn on me. I could see that when I failed to help Karolyn around the house, the climate wasn't very good at home. But whenever I did some little thing to help her, it made a positive impression. I didn't have all the theories worked out back then, but I realized my wife's love language was acts of service. After months of feeling totally unloved, she finally sensed that I did love her after all.

I'll be honest. I don't like running the vacuum. My mother made me do it when I was a boy, and I never have liked it. But I vacuum the floors about once a week now, and there's only one reason why: I love Karolyn and I want her to know it. Every time I vacuum the floor, my wife realizes, "He cares. He's helping me."

Vacuuming the floors is one thing, but what if your mate's language is meaningful time? In order for you to deliver on that one, you're going to have to give something up.

You've hit on a key truth about love: It's costly. But if you're not willing to give something up, you're saying the things that currently take up your time are more important than your marriage. It's a matter of seeing marriage as a priority, and then deciding what you can give up. Actually, we make those decisions all the time. If we want to go to a ballgame, we give up the other things we could be doing with that time.

This stuff can feel pretty overwhelming. Is it okay to start off with something easy and then gradually work up to the bigger stuff?

Sure. Even a small step will begin to change the emotional climate of a relationship. I encourage couples to start with a specific assignment that is relatively easy: Each spouse determines one way he or she can express love during the coming week. Let's say a woman's language is acts of service. She could ask her husband: "How about taking out the garbage without being reminded?" He'd say, "Okay. How often would you like me to do it?" And she'd say, "How about every two days?" He would then set that as his goal for the week.

He starts taking out the garbage, and every time his wife sees the emptied waste basket she feels a little tingle inside. "Hey, he's really taking this seriously." She begins to feel better immediately.

What does she do for her husband?

Let's say his language is physical touch, and she's just not very expressive in that way. He would ask her to do something nonthreatening. "How about when you enter or leave a room, you touch me on the shoulder as you walk by?" And she'd say, "I can do that." As the week goes by, every time she touches his shoulder, inside he feels, "She's really trying. This is wonderful." He begins to have positive feelings toward her after months of emotional distance.

Does this approach always produce such positive results?

Usually, but not always. I can't guarantee that if you love your spouse, that he or she will reciprocate. But I can tell you that emotional love is a desperate need for all of us. So if you'll speak your mate's primary language over the long haul, there's a high probability he or she will respond.

Most people want an intimate relationship. They want to have a sense that, as a couple, they are one. They just don't know how to get it. That's why I spend so much time helping people larn their mate's love language. It's one way you can both get what you need in marriage.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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