Touted as “the best book on marriage” by countless satisfied readers, Willard F. Harley Jr.’s His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage teaches spouses nearly fool-proof methods for increasing their love for each other. Because Harley believes that each spouse has five basic needs that he or she needs filled, his overall thesis for the book is that in discovering and meeting each other’s basic needs, a couple can restore the sentiment of love to their marriage, thereby saving and strengthening their entire relationship (Harley, 12, 30). The following paragraphs will summarize the contents of this book, critique and evaluate portions of the content, and finally apply Harley’s propositions to this author’s own personal marriage.
After introducing his theme in both his introduction and first chapter, Harley develops a foundational metaphor for the marriage relationship in Chapter 2 by describing the “Love Bank,” a theoretical holding inside each person where one’s acquaintances and spouse can either deposit or withdraw “love units.” Harley’s guiding goal is for each spouse to cease making withdraws from the other spouse through selfishness and to start building up a wealth of love units inside them. He also introduces the ten basic needs of both men and woman, assigning five specific needs to each gender in response to the needs of the average male and female (19, Appendix B).
In Chapters 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11, Harley writes about the five most common female needs, the common thread of which is the sense of security (103). Any of these needs could be felt by men as well. Chapter 3 describes the need for affection, evidenced by open displays of love and necessary for intimate sex (38, 39, 44). In Chapter 5, Harley describes the need for intimate conversation by not only teaching men how to converse correctly with their wives but also challenging them to dedicate fifteen hours each week to intimate conversation (70). Chapter 7 describes the need for emotional, historical, current, and future transparency (105-111). Chapter 9 describes the need for financial support and suggests ideas for effective budgeting (133-136). Chapter 11 describes the need for family commitment evidenced by both time and training and something to which husbands must commit another fifteen house per week (160-161).
In Chapters 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12, Harley discusses the five most common male needs which could also be felt by some women. Chapter 4 describes the need for sexual fulfillment by summarizing the sexual experience and by quipping: “Meet your spouse’s needs as you would want your spouse to meet yours” (64). Chapter 6 describes the need for recreational companionship and vilifies independent activities within marriage (92-94). Chapter 8 describes the need for physical attractiveness, including the spouse’s weight, makeup, hair, clothes, and hygiene. Chapter 10 describes the need for domestic support, stating that on average “she wants domestic tasks completed,[and] he has a need for her to complete them” (148). Harley helps by also describing how couples can actually accomplish these tasks together (149-154). Chapter 12 describes a man’s need for admiration, gentle words of love and praise from his wife, phrases which she must freely give but which he must also earn by meeting her basic needs (172, 176).
Harley continues in Chapter 13 by describing the possibilities of happiness after an affair, the only hope for which comes when a couple “turn their marriage into a passionate and fulfilling experience” (189). He closes his book in Chapter 14 by emphasizing the differences between incompatible (“inharmonious; antagonistic”) and irresistible (“having an overpowering appeal”), a distinction essential to one’s proper application of the principles laid out in the book.
Book Critique and Evaluation
Harley’s book arguably is one of the best marriage books ever written, for it teaches a couple well how they can revert the affections of their marriage back to those experienced during the dating years. Upon marriage, the fight for knowing one’s spouse is generally lost, because there is little fear of losing the spouse, and there is much expectancy of what the next fifty years of marriage will afford. Each spouse thus becomes less focused on attracting than on being attracted, and such attitudes lead to eventual difficulties in marriage. All of this and more is hidden within the pages of His Needs, Her Needs, and the following paragraphs will dissect more closely the negative and positive aspects of the book.
Negatively, Harley’s book contains two questionable elements. First, his persistent emphasis on the ever-present temptation to get involved in an affair is somewhat disheartening to a reader whose marriage seems quite healthy. While this danger is most present for any spouse whose love bank is slowly trickling down towards to the red, and while Harley’s perpetual reference to affairs is purposefully used to ignite fear in the heart of an apathetic spouse, his emphasis on failed marriages always resulting in affairs could have been better treated by suggesting other dangers to marriage along with the one extreme. Rather than showing all failed marriages ending in an affair, he could have shown the un-fulfillment of needs leading to the more common sexual, emotional, or spiritual distances felt in weak marriages which could potentially end in divorce. Second, while Harley’s book could be extremely beneficial in helping heal broken marriages, his emphasis on unmet needs as the root cause of marriage problems seems to ignore the reality of sin. Not all infidelity can be linked to unmet needs, but all infidelity can certainly be linked to sin. If Harley purports to be a believer but desires to keep his book “mainstream,” he could still have included a chapter on (or at minimum, a reference to) sin.
Positively, Harley’s book has set a standard for marriage help that other books can only attempt to replicate. The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, for example, quite obviously reinterprets the basic premises and methods of Harley’s Needs. This review’s goal is not to condemn Love Languages as “a new dog with old tricks,” but the extent to which it emulates Needs is really quite shocking, and the following are just two examples. First, whereas Harley offers ten basic needs, any five of which will be a spouse’s most basic, Chapman offer five love languages shared amongst all spouses everywhere. Loosely speaking, Chapman’s five love languages are simply a new way of categorizing Harley’s ten basic needs of men and women. For example, Chapman’s “words of affirmation” is Harley’s “admiration” and “transparency”; and Chapman’s “quality time” is Harley’s “family commitment,” “recreational companionship,” and “intimate conversation” (Chapman, Chapters 4 and 5; Harley, Appendix A). Chapman does not stop here in his apparent emulation of Harley, however, for no one can deny the close link between Chapman’s “love tank” and Harley’s “love bank” (Chapman, Chapter 2; Harley, 24). After a close analysis of these two analogies, one would have to agree that Harley’s analogy best pictures and explains the emotional give-and-take that occurs between spouses.
Needs has already had a noticeable impact on my own marriage. My wife and I read through this book together, and, although we already had a basic understanding of our own love languages after reading Chapman’s book, we were excited to find in Harley’s book not only a more in-depth look at the needs that lie behind our love languages, but also some specific ways to improve our relationship with this information in mind. This section will discuss how we have taken steps to improve both our domestic life and our recreational life together.
Domestically speaking, “acts of service” is probably my wife’s number one love language, and domestic support is one of my top five basic needs (Chapman, Chapter 4; Harley, Chapter 10). In Chapter 10 of Needs, Harley discusses a practical method of divvying out the unwanted household chores that couples experience. This method accomplishes many things, not the least of which is a lightened burden for my wife with regards to daily chores, but also an opportunity for me to make deposits into my wife’s love bank daily, for every time I do a task I do not enjoy for the sake of my wife’s happiness, the sacrifice is noticed and very well accepted.
Recreationally speaking, Harley offers an excellent exercise in Appendix C which allows couples to review and rank at least 125 different recreational activities by preference. After working through this exercise, my wife and I discovered several surprising , latent enjoyments that we have never considered and never tried together before. Because we come from two different cultures, we have had trouble in the past settling on activities we each enjoy highly and equally, a problem I have not taken well, since recreational companionship is perhaps my number one basic need. Now that we have a list of eleven activities we both enjoy but have never tried, I feel that my wife and I can finally connect as we first did in China and that I no longer feel as if I need to find a recreational partner outside of our marriage relationship.
Willard F. Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs would be a book useful for any married couple whose relationships is either on the proverbial rocks or as healthy as it was when they first said, “I do.” The ideas presented in the book are not magic pills able to cure the worst infidelities, though implementation of these ideas certainly could help a couple build an “Affair-proof Marriage.” As Harley notes in Chapter 3: “Knowing what your spouse needs does not meet the need. You must learn new habits that transform that knowledge into action” (43). I would encourage anyone married to read this book, for when he reads it and puts what he learns into practice, nothing could ever squelch the love that he will ignite in the heart of his spouse.
Chapman, Gary D. The Five Love Languages. Chicago: Northfield Pub, 1992.
Harley, Willard F. His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2011.