The Family: A Proclamation to the World reminds us that we have an obligation to love and serve our marriage partner. To love them effectively, we have to know and understand their inner world—their likes, dislikes, thoughts, and feelings. Taking the time to do this and then acting on what we learn is a powerful way to nurture love and respect in our marriage. Researcher John Gottman calls this process enhancing our "love maps."1
What is a love map? Gottman says it's the part of your brain where you store important information about your spouse.1 It's like a mental notebook where you write down unique traits of your spouse and things about him or her you want to remember. It includes your spouse's dreams, goals, joys, fears, likes, dislikes, frustrations, and worries. Things like your husband's favorite breakfast cereal or the name of your wife's best friend are important "points" on the map.
Why are thorough love maps so important? Because they strengthen marriages. Couples with extensive love maps remember important dates and events, and they stay aware of their partner's changing needs. They constantly seek updates on what the other person is doing, feeling, and thinking. Being known in this way is a gift each partner gives the other, bringing great happiness and satisfaction. It also makes couples better prepared to cope with stresses on their marriage.
For example, in one study Gottman interviewed couples around the time of the birth of their first child.1 For 67% of couples this stressful event was accompanied by a significant drop in marital satisfaction. But the other 33% did not see such a drop, and many felt their marriages had improved. The difference was the completeness of the couples' love maps. "The couples whose marriages thrived after the birth had detailed love maps from the get-go. . . ," says Gottman.1 "These love maps protected their marriages in the wake of this dramatic upheaval."
Couples who had established a habit of finding out about each other's thoughts and feelings were likely to continue doing so at a time of change. Their deep knowledge about each other and their practice of staying in touch protected their relationships from being thrown off course. They grew to love each other more deeply because there was more about each other to love.
Here are some activities to help you nurture love and respect by expanding and using your love maps:
- Play "Love Map 20 Questions" with your spouse. Together write down as many detailed, personal questions you can think of (at least 20). Include a wide range of questions from many different categories. Take turns asking each other questions from your list. Then see if you can answer the questions for each other by turning your questions around. Instead of asking "What is your dream vacation?" ask "What is my dream vacation?"
Keep score if you like, but keep the game lighthearted and fun, not competitive. Examples of the categories and questions you might ask include the following:
Family: Which of my parents do I think I'm most like? Why?
Friends: Name two of my best friends and how I met them.
Work: How do I feel about my boss? What would I change about my job?
Hobbies: What are my three favorite things to do in my spare time?
Dreams: What is one of my unrealized dreams?
Favorites: What is my favorite dessert? TV show? Sports team?
Feelings: What makes me feel stressed? When do I feel confident?
- Exchange journals. For two consecutive weeks, keep a journal. Write something every day, even if it's brief. Try not to focus on your actions, such as "Today I went to the store and took the kids to soccer." Rather, focus on your thoughts and feelings-"I was really upset by the way Bob treated me at work today" or "I read an article today and it reminded me of. . . ." At the end of the two weeks, exchange journals.
Use your love map to show you care. Think of something special or unique about your spouse-something personal and specific, such as a talent, dream, favorite thing. Then turn that thought into a kind act for your spouse, such as making her favorite dish or clipping from the newspaper a course announcement about something that interests him. You might also write your spouse a note about one of their best qualities. For example, if your husband or wife is especially dedicated to his or her job, write a note saying how much you appreciate and admire this. Slip it into a briefcase or purse.
It's important that you not do something generic. The purpose of this activity is to show your spouse that you know and remember specific things about him or her. So don't just buy your wife some flowers-buy her yellow rose buds because you know those are her favorite.
During a visit to her in-laws, Ann found out that when her husband, Steve, was a little boy he always wanted his birthday cakes decorated like choo-choo trains. A few months later, she surprised Steve by making a train cake for his birthday.
Bob's favorite movie was playing at the local theatre. After work, Susan surprised him with pre-paid tickets for the evening show.
Bill's wife, Jill, loves to try new recipes. While he was picking up a few things at the store, he also picked up a cooking magazine.
Use your love maps to speak your spouse's "love language." Each of us likes to be loved in our own way, according to our own love language. Enhancing our love maps allows us to become more knowledgeable about our spouse's love language so that when we send a message intended as loving, it will be received as loving.
When we neglect to learn our partner's love language, it's easy to make mistakes when we intend to communicate love. For example, Robert got up at 5:30 one Saturday morning and washed, waxed, and polished the floors, cleaned the garage, cut the lawn, and planted flowers. He thought these actions were a great way to communicate love to his wife because for him, such actions communicate love. At noon he showered and was about to leave. As he walked out the front door, his wife said: "John, the least you could do is kiss me good-bye!" He thought he had already shown his love by doing the chores above and beyond what was expected, but her love language required affection. Without it, she did not truly feel loved.
Develop a "Caring Days" list. One way to learn to speak each other's love language is to practice "Caring Days," a technique developed by therapist Richard Stuart and clinically shown to strengthen marriages. Here's how to do it:
First, sit down together and develop a Caring Days list by agreeing on several behaviors or actions (say, nine for each partner) that you find loving and would like to receive from your partner. These actions must be:
1. Specific (such as "Tell me you love me at least once a day"),
2. Positive (not "Don't do this" or "Stop doing that"),
3. Small enough to be done on a daily basis (such as "Call me at work during lunch, just to see how I'm doing"), and
4. Not related to any recent conflict.
Second, agree to doing five of the actions on the Caring Days list each day for two weeks. Even if your partner doesn't follow through with his or her list, be patient and persist in doing your list.
Third, put the Caring Days list in a conspicuous place, such as on the refrigerator door or bathroom mirror. List the actions in a center column and your name on one side and your spouse's names on the other. When an action is received, note the date next to the action. This will help reinforce speaking one another's love language.
At the end of two weeks, evaluate how your relationship has changed.
An action one wife listed was a "daily back rub." He liked her to "snuggle up close to me when we sit together." Creating, keeping, then following a current Caring List reduces the guesswork in nurturing love and respect in marriage.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.