Willard Harley began the journey of writing His Needs, Her Needs following a thirteen-week course on marriage with the theme: what must a couple do to stay happily married? That was 1978 and eight years later this classic book on the ten most vital needs of men and women became a best seller after only two years of its first printing. Harley grew up watching the end of the traditional nuclear family in America, as the divorce rate climbed from ten percent to over fifty percent. He attributed this increase in divorce and decline in individuals’ commitment to one another as being a side effect of the culture and couples believing they were no longer in love with each other. The more Harley began to look at marriage, the more he felt called to help cure the epidemic that had swept across America. After receiving his PhD in psychology, he began to discover most of the marital experts and therapists had little to no success in restoring marriages, despite no one being willing to admit their failure.
Session after session, Harley sought to find the one thing that couples could reach for to fall in love again. Love was what brought most people together, so it only seemed logical that love should be able to heal any hurt and bring them back together, right? While the couples said they wanted to be in love again, many were not willing to put forth the effort to do so. As a result, Harley came to the conclusion, if he wanted to save marriages, he would have to learn how to restore the feeling of love. Fortunately, with his education background coming from psychology, he understood conditioned responses, as well as emotional reactions. From this platform, he began teaching what men and women needed from each other to trigger the feeling of love, and also what motivated them to meet the other’s needs. While satisfying the needs of the partner and triggering the feeling of love were the foundation to Harley’s approach, he also establishes the importance of communication and problem solving to make this more than a Pavlovian experiment on marriages.
Harley begins his book suggesting one takes stock of their marriage/relationship and asks the question: how affair proof is it? He then establishes everyone has love-banks, which never close and that everyone who interacts with them is either making a deposit or withdrawal and if the spouse is not making the right type of love-deposits, someone else in their life will have the opportunity to meet that specific need, which could quickly lead to an affair. Next, Harley demonstrates how the primary thing women cannot live without is affection, while men cannot live without sexual fulfillment. Interestingly, Harley cites, “Most affairs start because of a lack of affection (for the wife) and lack of sex (for the husband). It is a viscous cycle. She does not get enough affection, so she shuts him off sexually and he does not get enough sex, so the last thing he feels like being is affectionate.” Second only to affection, Harley illustrates a woman’s need to have intimate conversation, while the man’s secondary need is recreational companionship.
Upon establishing these core needs, Harley shows why women need to be able to trust their men, so there is exists a constant environment of honesty (past, present, and future) and openness. On the man’s side, he wants his partner to be attractive and desirable because when she looks good, he feels good. As Harley progresses, it seems more and more apparent that men and women are polar opposites in their needs. Women need to feel financially comfortable, while men just want peace and quiet, so Harley shows the importance of assigning and rating the importance of responsibilities. Women are looking for family commitment and men just want their partner to be proud of them and to admire them. Each partner is the answer to the other’s needs, so Harley concludes with how to move from being incompatible to being irresistible and also how to survive an affair. Ultimately, Harley shows how incompatibility leads to irresistibility by meeting each other’s most important emotional needs.
Harley’s illustration of the love-bank is a wonderful illustration of what happens over time when needs are neglected. It is also eye opening to show how unmet needs can easily lead to an affair by someone else meeting the partner’s most basic needs. While Harley identifies affection, sexual fulfillment, intimate conversation, and recreational companionship as the main things a partner cannot live without, his theory would have been even stronger by identifying more ways the partner could express their love i.e. words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, or acts of service. He does point out that, “Often the failure of husbands and wives to meet each other’s emotional needs is simply due to ignorance of each other’s needs and not selfish unwillingness to be considerate.” To illustrate this, Harley demonstrates, “Conversation is an integral part of how all of the other important emotional needs are met [and] it is necessary for everyday problem solving and conflict resolution.” Here would have been a wonderful place to talk through how to work through conflicts and why conflict can actually be healthy when it is handled correctly, as a life without conflict is nothing more than artificial harmony.
This writer agrees with Harley that it is important to find common interests, but developing clear communication channels, healthy boundaries, and accountability should be the groundwork of beginning or fixing a marriage. In theory, Harley is correct, as the danger, specifically for men is, “spending recreational time with his wife is ranked second only to sex for the typical husband.” This statistic only validates why men go looking outside the marriage to meet this fundamental need. Harley cites this, “common pattern at its worst can lead to an affair and divorce, [so] the wise couple will avoid this trend in their marriage or correct it as soon as it begins.” Prior to marriage, Harley illustrates, “Most men and women combine all four needs into a romantic experience, but after marriage, spouses get lazy. Women are too tired for sexual fulfillment… and men cannot fit affection or intimate conversation into their busy schedules.” The longer a couple suffers under these conditions, the less likely they fill find enjoyment and fulfillment in life or from each other. He is correct when he illustrates how affection is the environment, while sex is an event and how women need to feel emotionally attached to make it more than a physical event. His understanding of all the components that make up the sexual experience was enlightening, but there is no mention of God creating sex for husband and wife. This would have added understanding to the biblical model of marriage God has established.
Harley demonstrates a significant amount of scientific knowledge, but his lack of stressing God’s importance in the marriage leaves this writer wanting more. Every one of his points would be even better and if they had been placed in the context of marriage being more than just a contract or an exchanging of vows. This view makes marriage seem like a conditional union and while Harley actually says marriage is a very conditional union, he is illustrating the rationalization that goes on in the mind when one’s needs are not being met and the quid pro quo that results. His research into the importance of doing things together and as a family is great because, “It reflects the care both spouses should have for each other, as activities found to be mutually enjoyable will very likely be done again, and it ensures deposits in each other’s love-bank.” However, if Harley has asserted that spending time in the presence of God came even above the needs of one’s spouse, this method would cause one to experience if God is truly first, the only natural response is for the spouse to then make their partner the second most important priority and love of their life. Harley also fails to mention anything to avoid i.e. social media, being alone in the presence of the opposite sex, staying overnight without your spouse, or elevating your children, job, or hobbies above your spouse’s importance.
People, places, and things constantly compete for time, yet Harley fails to acknowledge what happens as one can make time for everything else but their spouse or family. People are extremely selfish, so, in all things, God must be first, then the spouse, then the children, then jobs, and interests or hobbies. Love for God should be the stimulus that causes husbands and wives to love each other. The love one shows is an investment in their life and if more spouses were cognizant of this principle, this writer believes there would be more healthy relationships and less marriages starving and failing. Overall, this writer likes Harley’s approach and while some of his methods seem radical, they demonstrate what one is truly willing to sacrifice to save the marriage and they illuminate what is truly a priority in one’s life. By realigning one’s priorities, meeting each other’s emotional needs, and finding mutually enjoyable activities, this writer believes Harley’s methods are a great start to fixing and avoiding marital issues.
Harley, Willard F. Jr. His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, Revised and Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2011.