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What I’ve learned about love

The most appropriate word I can think of to describe most of my relationships is “rocky,” but if there’s one thing I can say about my last effort, it’s that I’ve finally learned something useful about love. I post it in the hopes that it will help somebody else.
I don’t know that this is the best way to happiness, but it’s the best way I’ve found in my 28 years walking this earth. Find somebody, then dedicate your efforts into making that other person happy.

Happiness, to me, has always been fleeting. I have a pretty somber disposition, so happiness is a rare treat. I found a bunch of it when I went on a mission trip. I found some of it the first time I published a magazine article, and again the first time I published a book. I occasionally find it in friendships. But I’ll be brutally honest here: Even while on the mission trip, at the very height of the trip, I found myself aged 27 and desperately lonely. I’d written a lyric back in 1997 at the end of a breakup. It said: “You ask what’s left, I’ve just got God / One day that will be enough / But in the meantime I still exist.”

When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking of one day here and there, that being enough. But that was what I got. The lyric was still true, nearly five years after I’d written it.

In October, I found myself in a relationship, and like many of my relationships, it took off like a rocket. Unlike the overwhelming majority of my relationships, this one had some distance to it. But in time, the newness and the perfection faded away, leaving two people who loved each other, but who also seemed to possess a very significant talent for hurting one another.

I’ll be forever in debt to Steve Mahaffey, who pointed me to the Marriage Builders website. Dr. Willard Harley makes a buttload of sense. (I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see his name in the same sentence with that particular word.)

His idea of the most important emotional needs is very like the advice in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, but it gets to the point a whole lot faster and tells you more. It also doesn’t just talk in generalities, which is important. Yes, I’m a man, but I do have at least one trait that’s more commonly associated with women (in my case, it’s because I’m a grown child of an alcoholic).

Here’s my paraphrase of Harley’s take: There are 10 things that people need. They probably desperately want five of them from their relationship. The other five are less important. Some of those may be moderately important. One or two of them they can probably take or leave. Here are the 10 things:

Domestic support
Family commitment
Financial support
Physical attractiveness
Recreational companionship
Sexual fulfillment

In the case of a Christian dating relationship where there isn’t sex going on, I lump the more physical aspects of the relationship into sexual fulfillment. A short kiss is probably affection, as is a hug. A really long kiss is probably sexual, especially if accompanied with a passionate embrace. So some degree of sexual fulfillment goes on in very nearly every romantic relationship.

Now, here’s something that I noticed. Say a girlfriend comes over a few times before I got off work to cook dinner or clean the kitchen. I appreciate it. It’s work I don’t have to do myself. But I’d be happier just to see her–she could have been sitting in a chair reading a book when I came in and I would have been just about as appreciative.

If she really wanted me to feel special, all she really needed to do was read my Web site occasionally and take an interest in some of my writing–just checking in once a week and reading the non-computer stuff would have been great. That would have meant more to me, even though it’s probably less work. Why? Admiration is my #1. Domestic support is my #9.

So here’s the idea. Take that list, and then figure out if you could only have one of those 10 things from your significant other, which would it be. That’s your #1. Then figure out if you could only have two of them, and so on. Rank them, all the way down to #10. Have your significant other do the same, then share your lists.

If, like me, you’ve learned that making someone else happy makes you happy, you’ve just uncovered what ought to be the secret of the most incredible relationship ever. When you try to do things for your significant other, concentrate on things that fall into their top 5 categories. You’ll score more points than if you hit things on their lower five. (Harley talks about the concept of scoring points with your significant other in his piece The Love Bank.)

If you’ve ever found yourself muttering, “Boy, I sure didn’t score very many points on that one,” you’ve probably noticed that men and women tend to have some opposite needs and wants, and we tend to do things for our significant other that we appreciate ourselves when we’re trying to make them happy, and that often causes us to hit low on the scale. Then they don’t notice and we don’t feel appreciated. But things that involve one of the top five needs stand an excellent chance of being noticed and appreciated.

This principle can be applied instantly in a marriage or long-term dating situation. I don’t think it’s first-date material or even second-date material. But once the relationship has become one of committed and exclusive nature and the newness has started to wear off, it would be a perfect time to bring it in.

Harley talks about a lot of other things, but this struck me as the jewel. It seems to me that if nearly any couple were to rank their needs, then concentrate really hard on meeting one another’s top fives, the importance of the aggravating things about the relationship would diminish very quickly. Have you ever found anything that knocks the rough edges off a person as quickly and effectively as a satisfying, unconditional kind of love, when reciprocated effectively?

If you found this post informative or helpful, please share it!

4 thoughts on “What I’ve learned about love”

  1. Dave,

    Excellent summary of some of Harley’s most important concepts. I’m glad that you find them helpful, as do I.

    Sometimes the terms used seem a bit silly, like love bank or love busters. Get past that and I find that Harley has a genius for explaining complicated things in a way that anyone can understand. Perhaps even more important, the application of the principles that he teaches is clear.

    When it comes to relationships, Harley makes the unfathomable understandable, the complicated clear, and the path plain in a way to no one else that I’ve found can.

  2. Dave –

    Thank you for sharing your profound and significant insights. “Love” defies definition – but you and Harley seem to have come up with workable and practical solutions. Should be a Must Read for everyone applying for a marriage license.

    Seems to boil down to the axiomatic “It is better to give than to receive” with the added filip of _effective_ giving. It answers the eternal question “What do women (men) want?”

    I wish I had had this information 30 years ago.




  3. I wish I’d had it seven months ago.

    I think the most important point Harley makes is that what women/men want doesn’t matter nearly as much as what the woman/man in your life wants. My #2 and #5 needs/wants are unconventional for men, but when you consider that I competed, mostly unsuccessfully, with alcohol for 19 years for my dad’s attention, the two of them make sense.

    There are reasons for the differences between the average man/woman and any particular man/woman, and those reasons are usually very valid and important.

  4. Wow, potent thoughts — frankly I think you know more about love than I did at your age.

    Takes me way back to the first time I tried to consciously turn a relationship over to God. It just wasn’t His plan, and I got a brutally direct answer to that question. But then I couldn’t let go and had to get all stupid and stuff… (regrettable)

    But to the relationship that’s presently troubling you — it’s not about your worth or how loveable you are, it’s just that your gears don’t mesh. If you’ll consider the experience of a greybeard, I’d advise that you let this one go, chill with friends, and let God steer you to a relationship that does mesh.

    My wife and I are far from perfect, not always particularly loveable, but we’ve meshed well for over 30yr — well enough so I’ve never contemplated how things might have been with any of those practice relationships that went before.


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