Winning at marriage: An interview with Gary Chapman

Thank you, Dr. Chapman, for being a part of our exciting launch of Becoming Missional. Dr. Chapman is the bestselling author of the Five Love Languages, relationship counselor, and radio show host who has been helping marriages improve and heal for over 45 years.

I have had the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Chapman over the last few years, and I can say he is an incredible gift to marriages, one to glean much wisdom from, and after hearing him speak to a few of communities, he is not just an inspirational writer but also a funny and remarkable communicator.

Dr. Chapman, I hear many of the same questions, as I am sure you do, over and over again concerning challenges in marriage.  I’d love to talk to you today about marriages and questions I’ve received from couples throughout the years.

To begin, one of the issues that surfaces in many marriages is the feeling of falling “out of love”. How does one respond when they no longer feel love from their spouse despite efforts and pleas to make it better?

Dr. Chapman: This is a common complaint.  When we come down off the emotional high of the ‘in-love’ experience, we sense the loss. The emotions are gone and our differences arise and we end up arguing. After a few arguments, we feel rejected instead of loved. We likely express our pain by complaints. This drives our spouse away even further.

The key is to apologize for your critical remarks and then begin speaking your spouse’s love language.  Remember, love begins with the attitude; “I choose to enhance your life.”  When you love them in their love language, they begin to feel drawn to you. They will then begin to ask what they can do for you.  Love stimulates love.  The worst thing you can do is to continue complaining.  

That is very helpful as we recognize the importance of attitude, choices, and expressions of love that you capture well in your books. You’ve seen a lot over the years to help strengthen relationships. I often teach that practices perfect marriages. What we do, how we behave, and how we love one another every day grows and deepens love in a relationship. What would you say are the top 3 practices in successful marriages?

Dr. Chapman: Good question!  I would suggest:

(1) Speak the primary love language of your spouse on a regular basis. Our deepest emotional  

      need is to feel loved. When you speak love in a meaningful way, you create a positive

      emotional climate between the two of you.

(2) Learn to apologize when you do something that is unkind and unloving. To ignore your failures

     builds an emotional wall between you and your spouse. 

(3) Choose a loving attitude toward each other. “How may I help you?  How can I make your life

      easier?  How can I be a better husband/wife?” This is the attitude that leads to a good marriage.  

That’s great advice, Dr. Chapman, and wisdom we would do well to follow.

Growing up I often heard that we all have the “right one” out there for us to marry and enjoy a life-long loving relationship if we could just discover them. It’s the stuff romantic movies and novels are made of. In fact, this creeps up when there is trouble in the marriage, and we find ourselves wondering if we married the “right one”.  So, that leads us to ask the question: How does one know when they’re marrying the “right one”?

Dr. Chapman:  Ask questions.  Get to know each other.  Spend time with each other’s family.  Remember, you are marrying into a family.  Don’t allow the physical to become the predominate part of your dating relationship.  This is the most common mistake.  There is far more to marriage than physical attraction.  Take a personality test and see where your points of conflict are most likely to arise. Talk to your friends who know the person you are dating.  Listen to what they say.  They can see the other person more clearly than you when you are ‘in-love’.  Go for pre-marital counseling.  Work through my book: Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married.

Those are some very practical things to consider, especially for those thinking of marriage in the near future. For those that are already married we often wonder if we are getting it right?  In other words, how do I know if I have a good marriage?

Dr. Chapman:  Good marriages are growing marriages.  Marriages either get better or worse.  They never stand still.  Don’t think of a perfect marriage but of a growing marriage.  Good marriages are characterized by the willingness to enrich each other’s lives.  Two loving people will have a growing marriage.  Two selfish people will never have a good marriage. 

Marriage is a challenge.  Two individuals coming together to share life and form one union is not always easy.  Differing personalities, strengths, love languages, gifts, backgrounds, baggage all go into making this sometimes a difficult endeavor. What’s the first step to improve the relationship if someone feels the marriage is unhealthy?

 Dr. Chapman:  Read a book on marriage or go to a pastor or counselor.  Don’t think that things will get better simply with the passing of time.  The tendency is to blame your spouse.  This goes downhill.  Ask your spouse what you could do to be a better spouse.  Seek to be a better spouse.  When you are loving them, you can then make requests of them, and they are more likely to respond positively.  When you criticize them, they are not likely to respond positively. 

 It takes two to make the marriage work that’s for sure!  Your book, The Five Love languages, is one of my favorite books and has sold over 12 million copies. Simply incredible. I’ve found the book to be extremely helpful in getting marriages kickstarted towards growth and fulfillment.  In the book, you identify 5 languages of love we speak to one another, most of us having a primary and secondary language.  The languages people use to express love are affirming words, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and acts of service. If you could pick a 6th love language, what would it be?

Dr. Chapman:  I have no idea.  After 25 years no one has suggested to me what I think is a 6th love language.  One man said, “The sixth love language is chocolate.”  I said, “If they bought it, then it is a gift.  If they made it, then it is an act of service.”  There are many dialects in each of the five love languages, but I think the five are fundamental ways of expressing love. 

That’s quite funny and true. We can likely categorize all expressions of love into these five. There is no doubt in my mind marriages are going to be strong and healthy if they practice speaking love every day.  In addition to practicing these necessary languages, how do you suggest keeping the marriage fires burning strong over the years?

Dr. Chapman:  Communication!  Share life with each other.  You spend a great deal of your life apart while working.  Have a daily sharing time in which you share with each other at least three things that happened in your life today and how you feel about them. 

Don’t sweep conflicts under the rug.  Listen empathetically to each other and try to understand their perspective.  Then tell them, “I think I understand what you are saying, and I can see how that would make sense.  Now let me share my perspective.”  When you listen and affirm their ideas rather than telling them that they are wrong, you create a positive emotional climate where you can solve the conflict.

Always speak your spouse’s love language and apologize when you fail.  Always be ready to forgive your spouse when they apologize.

Forgiveness and apologies are extremely critical to maintaining love and joy in marriage. We certainly need a lot of both of these.  At least, I do.  In fact, you’ve written books on the subject of apology and forgiveness that are helpful and valuable to every marriage. Let’s spice things up a little bit. Sex is always a hot topic and it is common that there are different needs in the marriage.  How do couples get on the “same page” and navigate differences in this sensitive area?

Dr. Chapman:  First of all, read a book that deals with this topic and discuss it together.  I am amazed at how little most couples know about male and female sexuality.  My book: Happily Ever After, has a whole section on this topic: Making Sex a Mutual Joy. As in all of life, we must learn how to work together as a team.  Because we are very different sexually, we must learn how to pleasure each other.  It is not automatic.  Read, discuss, and listen to each other.

The intimacy component is certainly an area that requires attention or can create really difficult problems along the way because we are often wired so differently.  Differences often create distance that may lead one to wonder if there isn’t someone out there that would be a better fit, or if the old adage is true that the “grass is greener on the other side.”  How do you respond to this idea?

Dr. Chapman:  If the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, it is because it is sitting on a septic tank.  Beneath the imaginary, green grass is a person who is imperfect, broken, and fragile.  It is easy to get the “tingles” for someone else and think “I have found my soul mate.”  The reality is they are a real person with normal imperfections.  Far better to water the grass in your own marriage rather than looking for greener grass.

We’ve all got some watering and nurturing to do, and that’s at the heart of The Five Languages.  By expressing the language of our spouse, we invest and nurture love for them in a way they can understand and receive, thus, filling their love tank along the way. If this doesn’t happen, conflict often surfaces, and I’ve discovered that we tend to fight about the same things.  So, how do we learn to fight differently or overcome these challenges to make the marriage last?

Dr. Chapman:  Stop fighting and start listening.  The reason we don’t solve conflicts is that we are busy shooting each other rather than listening to each other.  The average person listens for seventeen seconds before they interrupt and tell the other person they are wrong. 

Take turns talking; five minutes each.  While your spouse is talking imagine that you have elephant ears.  You are fully listening, trying to understand how they could think what they are thinking and how they could feel what they are feeling then ask questions to clarify what they are saying.  Put yourself in their shoes and try to see the work through their eyes.  Then, you can honestly say, “I understand what you are saying, and it makes sense.”  Now, you are no longer their enemy but their friend.  Because you listened to them and affirmed their thoughts and feelings, they will likely listen to you and do the same.

Friendship, love, intimacy, communication are all key elements of a healthy, happy marriage, but, what do you say to a married couple that realize they are not as compatible as they thought before they got married?

Dr. Chapman:  None of us are compatible.  We are all very different.  Don’t curse the differences.  Rather, use them for your mutual benefit.  You both bring different things to the marriage.  You are a team.  Use your differences to enrich the marriage.  Differences were not designed to drive us apart but to make like richer. 

It is fine to request change.  Perhaps your spouse will be able to change some things to make life better for you.  However, some things they are not able to change.  We are all wired differently.  Love accepts the spouse and the differences.  Some of you are organized, and others are not.  Don’t expect that to change significantly. 

Finally, all of us could use some advice to better our marriage. What is the top advice you give the couple about to get married?

Dr. Chapman:  Read and discuss my book: Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married.  Then, after you are married read and discuss: Happily Ever After.

Then, read and discuss one book on marriage each year for the rest of your life. 

Attend a marriage prep class before you get married, and each year thereafter, attend a marriage enrichment retreat.  If you will do these two things, I predict you will have the marriage you’ve always wanted.

Thank you Dr. Chapman for sharing your wisdom, advice, and encouragement to help us walk in more fulfilling relationships.  You’ve been a blessing to millions, and I’m honored to call you a friend.

Dr. Gary Chapman is the author of bestseller The Five Love Languages. More about his book and resources can be found on his website: http://www.5lovelanguages.com

Dr. James Armstrong is the founder and Lead Strategist for Becoming Missional, a discipling, equipping and teaching ministry helping to unleash the church around the world to further the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.  More information can be found on his website: http://www.becomingmissional.com

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James Armstrong

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