Chapter OneHOW I LEARNED TO SAVE
I've been counseling couples with marital problems for over forty
years, and during that time I've learned what makes marriages
succeed and what makes them fail. But I sure didn't start out
knowing that. In fact my first ten years of marriage counseling
taught me only one thing-that I was not qualified to counsel.
Although almost every couple I saw was sincerely grateful for my
advice, I cannot think of a single couple I actually helped. Most
of their marriages ended in divorce, and the rest continued to have
One couple I counseled was my pastor and his wife. The choir
director and my pastor's wife were having an affair, and I tried to
help end it. I explained to her how the affair was threatening the
happiness and success of their children and ruining her husband's
ministry, and how the choir director's wife and children needed
him just as much as her husband and children needed her. But
she replied that since God was a God of love, he had approved
her relationship with the choir director by giving her the feeling
of love for him.
I had come face-to-face with the irrationality that the feeling of
love can create, and I didn't know how to handle it. Eventually my
pastor's wife and the choir director divorced their respective spouses
and married each other. The children in both families suffered
greatly throughout the entire ordeal, and to the best of my knowledge
are still suffering. The church began a downward spiral from
which it never recovered and it eventually disbanded.
This tragedy took place because my
pastor's wife had fallen out of love with her husband
and fallen in love with the choir director.
(Incidentally, after a few years of an unhappy
marriage, the choir director had another affair
and divorced my pastor's former wife.)
My pastor was not alone in the tragedy of
divorce. His was just one of a host of marriages
caught up in a wave that was overwhelming
families in the mid-1960s. This trend toward
divorce would escalate over the next twenty
years until more than half of all marriages were ending in divorce.
I didn't know that at the time. I thought that this failure was, at
least in part, due to my inexperience. I blamed myself, thinking
that I should not have tried to give advice, that I should have left
it to an "expert."
Over the next few years, couples kept asking for my advice
regarding marriage, especially after I earned a Ph.D. degree in psychology.
So instead of turning these people away, I decided to learn
enough about marriage counseling to help save their marriages-I
decided to become an expert. After all, if scientists could send
men 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
and claimed to be the best in Minnesota. But none of it helped.
I was still unable to save marriages. Almost everyone who came
to me for help ended up like my pastor-divorced.
But in my effort to become an expert, 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 who worked with me. And
then I made the most astonishing discovery of all: Most of the
marital experts in America were also failing.
What made me unique among marriage counselors was my
curiosity to know if my efforts really worked. Hardly any other
therapist I knew wanted to know about the outcome of his or her
therapy. Many did not know they were failing because they never
followed up on their cases to see how the marriages were doing.
But I had access to their cases, so I did the follow-up for them. In
the clinic where I worked, I couldn't find any therapists who were
actually saving marriages. And to make matters worse, many of
these marital experts were divorced themselves. The director of
the clinic, and creator of their "successful" marital therapy program,
was divorced shortly after I left the clinic.
Was I working with a particularly inept group of therapists? Or
were the problems I witnessed only the tip of the iceberg? To satisfy
my curiosity, I did what I should have done in the very beginning
of my venture-I read studies that evaluated the effectiveness
of marital therapy in general. To my surprise, I learned that
marital therapy throughout America had the lowest success rate
of any form of therapy. In one study, I read that less than 25 percent
of those surveyed felt that marriage counseling did them any
good whatsoever, and a higher percentage felt that it did them
more harm than good.
Searching for Answers
What a challenge! Marriages were breaking up at an unprecedented
rate, and no one knew how to fix them! So I made it my
own personal ambition to find the answer, and I looked for that
answer not in books, scholarly articles, or experts but rather
among those who came to me for answers-couples who were
about to divorce. I stopped counseling and started listening as
spouses told me 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, and what would it take for them to find it
By 1975 I had discovered why I and so many other marital therapists
were having trouble saving marriages-we did not understand
what makes marriages work. We were all so preoccupied
with what seemed to make them fail that we overlooked what
made them succeed. Couples would come to my office for counseling
because they were making each other miserable. So I
thought, as most others thought, if I could simply get them to
communicate more clearly, resolve their conflicts more effectively,
and stop fighting with each other so much, their marriage would
be saved. But that wasn't the answer.
Couple after couple explained to me that they didn't marry
each other because they were communicating so clearly or resolving
their conflicts effectively or were not fighting
with each other. They married because
they found each other irresistible-they were
in love. But by the time they came to my
office, they had lost that feeling of love. Many
actually found each other repulsive. And one
of the most important reasons that they were
communicating so poorly, resolving their conflicts
so ineffectively, and fighting so much
was that they had lost their feeling of love.
If your marriage was in trouble and I asked you what would it
take for you and your spouse to be happily married again, what
would you say? My guess is that at first you might not imagine
that ever happening. You might think that the only way you could
be happily married would be if you were married to someone else!
But if I persisted, and you were able to reflect on my question,
you might say what others have told me: "We would be happily
married again if we were in love."
Over and over that's what couples told me when I asked that
question. But what they didn't tell me was also instructive. They
didn't tell me that if they communicated better or resolved their
conflicts or stopped fighting so much, they would be happily married.
Granted, poor communication, failure to resolve conflicts, and
fighting all contribute to the loss of love. But these are also symptoms
of lost love. In other words, I began to realize that if I wanted to
save marriages, 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 with couples
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 conflict resolution might not
be as much of an issue.
My background as a psychologist has 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
Success at Last
I could not have been more correct in my analysis. I found that
this hypothesis proved to be true-and it's the key to being a successful
marriage counselor. I began to encourage couples to try to
do whatever it took to make each other happy and avoid doing
what made each other unhappy. For the very first couple I counseled
with my new approach, the feeling of love was restored and
their marriage was saved.
So from that point on, each time I saw a couple, I simply asked
each of 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 do it. So I wasn't successful
with every couple I counseled, but I was on the right track.
As I perfected my approach to marriage counseling, I began to
understand what it is that husbands and wives need from each
other to trigger the feeling of love. So I helped couples identify
those needs. I also became increasingly effective at motivating them
to meet whatever needs were identified, even when they didn't
feel like doing it at first. Before long, I was helping almost every
couple fall in love, and thereby avoid divorce.
Up to this point in my career, I was teaching psychology full-time
and counseling part-time. I did not charge couples for my
services because I knew I had been ineffective in saving marriages.
But as soon as my new method proved to
be successful, I quit my secure job as a professor
and took the risky step of earning my
living as a marriage counselor. After one
month it was clear that I had made the right
choice-my schedule was full and I was saving
The reason my pastor's wife was willing to
sacrifice everything that was important to
her-her marriage, her children, her career,
even her faith-was that she was in love with
the choir director. If I had been able to redirect her feeling of love
from the choir director to her husband, their marriage would have
been saved and the tragic events that followed would have been
avoided. It was her feeling of love that got her into the mess she
was in, but the feeling of love would also have saved her. I only
wish I knew then what I know now.
And I want you to know what I know now. I want you to fully
understand how important your feeling of love, and your spouse's
feeling of love, is to the survival of your marriage. Whether you
know it or not, or whether you believe it or not, your marriage
depends on the love you and your spouse have for each other.
But I want you to do more than understand the importance of
love in marriage. I want you to be able to re-create it, if it's been
lost, and sustain it, if you are still in love. By the time you finish
reading this book, you will have the tools to do just that. I've written
this book to help you turn a potential disaster into a personal
Since the feeling of love is so important in marriage, I will begin
by helping you understand what the feeling of love is. I'll do this
by introducing you to the first basic concept I created to help couples
understand the rise and fall of their love for each other. I call
it the Love Bank.
• The feeling of love is such a powerful emotion that to sustain it people
are willing to sacrifice almost anything-their marriage, their
children's happiness, their career, and even their faith.
• When spouses are in love with each other, there is no risk of divorce
because they want to be with each other at all costs. But when they
are not in love, they lose their most important emotional reason to
be together, and the risk of divorce is very high, even if they have
learned to communicate effectively with each other.
• Marriage counselors who focus attention on communication skills
and conflict resolution cannot save marriages if their efforts do not
lead to triggering the feeling of love in couples they counsel.
• To save their marriage, a couple must learn how to fall in love and
stay in love with each other.
Chapter TwoTHE LOVE
Let me ask you a very personal question. Why did you decide to
marry your spouse? Did you discuss the pros and cons with friends
and relatives? Did you take a test to determine if you were compatible?
Did you find that your spouse met criteria that predicted
your marital success?
Maybe you did some of these things, but I doubt that they had
much effect on your decision to marry. Most couples marry each
other because they are in love. And when you're in love, you cannot
imagine living without each other. You probably married your
spouse because you found him or her irresistible.
That's how it was for my wife, Joyce, and me. Long before I
asked her to marry me, we both knew that we were unhappy
when we were not seeing each other regularly. We broke up a
few times so that we could date others, but whenever that happened,
we missed each other terribly. We were in love.
We eventually came to the conclusion that life without each
other would be a tragic mistake, and so to avoid disaster we married
much sooner than we had originally planned. Joyce was only
nineteen; I was twenty-one. Thirty-eight years later, with two
married children and four grandchildren, we still cannot imagine
what life would be like without each other. And we still find each
Joyce and I do not have a good marriage because we were
meant for each other. It may seem that way, but it isn't true. The
reason we are still in love with each other is that we have deliberately
done what it takes to stay in love. We are living proof that
a married couple can be in love throughout their lifetime as long
as they follow the "rules."
But before I explain these rules that will help you fall in love
and stay in love, you need to understand how love works.