Nobody gets divorced if they are in love. That profound realization became the thesis upon which marriage therapist and researcher Willard Harley, Ph.D., built his work and eventually became the inspiration for bestselling, His Needs, Her Needs.
In the more than 35 years since the book debuted, it has sold more than four million copies worldwide and has been translated into 22 languages. The concepts Dr. Harley introduced became the bedrock upon which later experts in the marriage field have founded their practices.
While semantic and social mores have shifted, (spoiler alert, an updated version of His Needs, Her Needs, with revised language and scenarios, will release next year.) Dr. Harley’s ideas remain timeless. His focus on providing extraordinary care and meeting a spouse’s emotional needs resonates just as much today as decades ago.
“I’m in favor of caring for other people and being responsible for the needs of others. I’m opposed to people hurting each other,” he said. “Everything I represent is accepted by current culture.”
Dr. Harley credits his Christian faith as critical to his understanding of extraordinary care. “We are known as Christ’s disciples by the care we give others,” he said. Dr. Harley encourages spouses to mutually put each other first in every aspect of life, to protect each other from selfish tendencies and make decisions together. “It’s very easy to do,” he said, “it just requires a bit of work.”
Marriage, the primary relationship of mutual extraordinary care, is built upon three pillars that explain how a couple should express care to each other.
1) Meet each other’s emotional needs.
2) Avoid hurting each other.
3) Make all decisions with the other in mind.
These three practices, when lived out, allow a couple to create sustained romantic love, Dr. Harley believes.
Why is romantic love important? Dr. Harley considers romantic love the litmus test of extraordinary care. “It’s the oil that keeps the gears running. The reason I focus so much on this is nobody gets divorced if they are in love,” he said. “If you want to solve the marriage problem of divorce, encourage people to fall in love and stay in love.”
To help people visualize how romantic love grows or wanes, Dr. Harley created the concept of an emotional Love Bank, which he describes as the “way your emotions keep track of the way people treat you.” When people make you happy, your emotions deposit units into that person’s account. When they make you unhappy, love bank units are withdrawn. Emotions do this without a person’s consent or even conscious knowledge. When someone makes you feel extraordinarily good and has deposited enough credits into their account in your love bank, you’ll reach the phenomena of romantic love.
“I knew that if a person was in love with their spouse, they had associated that person with incredible feelings of happiness. Do you make your spouse happy? If you do, they’ll associate you with happiness. That creates romantic love.”
Dr. Harley became interested in this area of human behavior because he considers it “absolutely critical to personal happiness. If you can create a great marriage with a couple, they will find a tremendous amount of fulfillment in life,” he said.
“At the end of life, people regret the failure of their marriage and relationships. It makes a great difference in life to have a great marriage.”
His needs, Her Needs, as well as Dr. Harley’s counseling practice through his Marriage Builders ministry, exhorts spouses to figure out each other’s emotional needs and learn how to meet them. He asked people what their spouse could do for them that would make them happiest. That research led him to delineate 10 categories of emotional needs that apply to most people.
Emotional needs include:
Affection – the nonsexual expression of care through words, cards, gifts, hugs, kisses, and courtesies; creating an environment that clearly and repeatedly expresses care.
Sexual Fulfillment — A sexual experience that is predictably enjoyable and frequent enough for you.
Intimate Conversation — Talking about feelings, topics of personal interest/opinions, and plans.
Recreational Companionship — Leisure activities with at least one other person.
Honesty and Openness — Truthful and frank expression of positive and negative feelings, events of the past, daily events and schedule, and plans for the future, not leaving a false impression.
Physical attractiveness — Physical traits of the opposite sex that are aesthetically and/or sexually pleasing.
Financial support — Provision of the financial resources to house, feed, and clothe your family at a standard of living acceptable to you.
Domestic support — Management of the household tasks and care of the children – if there are any at home – that creates a home environment that offers you a refuge from stress.
Family commitment — Provision for the moral and educational development of your children within the family unit.
Admiration — Being shown respect, value and appreciation.
When His Needs, Her Needs was first written, Dr. Harley found that while all 10 needs were important to both men and women, the genders tended to prioritize them differently.
“When couples are dating, a guy will go to a great deal of trouble to engage in intimate conversation, which shows affection, exactly what most women are looking for. Women will engage in recreational activities he likes and express sexual interest. They know what to do. Then, they get married, and they don’t have time. All the emotional needs they met when dating come to an end,” he said.
He believes this dichotomy explains why men and women find it so difficult to meet each other’s needs. They don’t recognize the importance of a need to their spouse if its priority doesn’t match their own. However, he emphasized, a particular need doesn’t have to be necessarily assigned to males or females. Different people are drawn to different things.
Learn to become an expert of your spouse’s needs. “You did it when dating, you can do it again,” Dr. Harley encouraged.
Meeting emotional needs isn’t the entire story, he added. Extraordinary care isn’t just about making someone happy, it is also about avoiding making them unhappy. Why would someone want to hurt the one they love? Dr. Harley said poor behavior is instinctive. “We’re angry, demanding, disrespectful, selfish, independent and annoying. We automatically carry with us instincts that destroy love.” (His book, Love Busters, details these bad habits at more length.) Dr. Harley cautioned that unless people deliberately work to avoid hurting their spouse, they will be working against their relationship by withdrawing all the deposits they were building up in the Love Bank.
The third leg of extraordinary care is for spouses to make decisions with the other in mind. This happens when a person trains themself to think about how the other person might feel about a decision and make a “policy of joint agreement.” Dr. Harley and his wife of 58 years and counseling partner, Joyce, “never do anything without being in enthusiastic agreement.”
The concept is to decide things together, without capitulation or sacrifice, so both are eventually happy with the outcome, Joyce said.
Updated Version Reflects Today’s Society
Dr. Harley began his work in the 1970s in research, and he still keeps current with societal trends, including the relational habits of millennials. He notes that 1960 marked the beginning of the end of the traditional nuclear family in America. Single adults now are in the majority in America.
Millennials are afraid of relationships, Joyce said. In focus groups pertaining to marriage, Dr. Harley found millennial women are afraid of marriage — afraid they’ll lose their identity. “Afraid they’ll make crazy stupid decisions that are not in their best interests if they fall in love.” Millennial men fear getting divorced and winding up supporting an ex-wife and kids for the rest of their lives. “They are afraid falling in love will trap them into that scenario.” So both genders fear not just marriage, but falling in love.
Dr. Harley has incorporated these societal shifts and will release a completely revised version of His Needs, Her Needs in February 2022. He’s switched the focus from infidelity to emphasize extraordinary care. A new chapter on affairs cautions each spouse to take personal responsibility for guarding their own Love Bank lest another begin deposits that would supplant affection for their spouse.
The book is being edited through a millennial lens and will reflect changed male/female roles. While the 10 emotional needs remain the same, top choices among genders have blurred. Once the need for a satisfying sexual relationship was more often prioritized by males, now females may be more likely to rank that need among their first choices. Likewise, the need for financial spousal support that was once rated higher by females has drifted into more neutral territory.
In addition to the newly updated book, (which joins his other 19 volumes) and video curriculum, Dr. Harley stays busy with the Marriage Builder ministry’s work. He writes a new article every month for the website marriagebuilders.com and personally counsels couples. He said the biggest problems he sees directly relate to people not meeting each other’s emotional needs, engaging in hurtful behavior and not making decisions together. “I see people struggling with the philosophy of extraordinary care when the other hasn’t done the same,” he added.
He and Joyce host a 1-hour radio show five days a week, a practice they started 20 years ago. Joyce was trained in broadcast, and originally Dr. Harley would appear on her show. Now Marriage Builders Radio is picked up by stations worldwide. They are beginning to resume travel to speaking engagements. He’ll be presenting for a group at the Magnolia Silos in Waco in June.
Dr. Harley enjoys the challenge of reaching people who don’t agree with him. “You can argue with me about any aspect of my approach,” he said. “But my position is one that will make people fulfilled in life.”
“This is scientific, factual evidence that has worked for thousands and thousands of couples over the years. It’s proven, it’s factual, here’s how it works. Are you interested?” Joyce added.
More about Dr. Harley
Dr. Harley earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California in Santa Barbara. Ironically, he was studying the field of artificial intelligence and had written an article about machine decision making that mimicked that of humans. His focus changed because, as he described, “I kept getting besieged with people with marriage problems.” (Perhaps because his father was a marriage counselor). While Dr. Harley was teaching psychology, he developed an interest in romantic love and why it was so critical. The concept literally “walked away with him.” He left AI and went on to become a licensed psychologist in 1976.