Dr. Gary Chapman on Love, Valentine's Day, and Healthy Relationships

Dr. Gary Chapman, Associate Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, is a bestselling author and internationally recognized relationship counselor. His series, “The Five Love Languages,” has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. As we move into a season of candy hearts and teddy bears—and a sometimes contrived sense of what love is all about—I sat down with Dr. Chapman to learn how to truly nourish relationships throughout the year.

Valentine’s Day is a time of heightened emotions for many—either positive or negative emotions depending upon relationship circumstances. What advice do you have for those struggling with singleness or a broken relationship this Valentine’s Day? What about those in a dating or marriage relationship?
Valentine’s Day can be very painful, because it is a day that talks about couples, and if you’re single and want to be married—not everyone who is single does—Valentine’s Day can be a very lonely time. My suggestion is to initiate activities with other singles. When you take the initiative to engage in other people’s lives, the result is that you do not feel nearly as lonely. When you initiate, you are acting in love.

If you are in a broken or fractured relationship, that, too, can be painful, because you may be looking back and remembering how good things used to be. My suggestion is, if you are married and the relationship is fractured, it would be a wonderful time to have a date and see what happens. Relationships never get better without communication.

For those who are married and may be having a group activity, invite single adults to come as well. We are all social creatures. Or, if you know a friend who has recently lost a spouse, you might invite him or her over for dinner as a way to affirm that you are aware of what they went through this year and know that Valentine’s Day might be particularly difficult. Another nice idea for couples is to dine in. If the wife normally cooks, the husband could do the cooking—if he is a decent cook! Or vice versa, if the husband usually cooks, the wife could prepare the meal. Valentine’s Day could also be a good night to have a simple meal and reminisce on the early days of the marriage. Sharing memories is a positive way to spend time together.

As creatures of habit, we tend to get into ruts. Sometimes the best thing is just doing something different from what you have always done.

You have often stated that “Love is a choice.” What do you mean by that?
People often think of love only as an emotion. It is an emotion, but fundamentally it starts with an attitude. We choose our attitudes—we do not choose our emotions. We do not get up one day and say I think I’ll feel hurt today, or loved, or disappointed. We do, however, choose every day, whether we will love people or not. We
choose whether we will act with their best interest in mind and do what we can to help them.

For example, in marriage, we are pushed along by wild emotions in the early stages. We come down off the high eventually, and that’s where we have to choose to love the other person. People often ask if you can love somebody you do not like. The answer is yes—you can choose the attitude. When you choose to love, love stimulates love. There is a good chance the individual will respond and reciprocate with the same attitude towards you. That is when the emotional warmth comes back. People ask me if romantic love can be re-born, and the answer is also yes, if two people choose to love each other and express those feelings in the right love language. It starts with a choice, and it results in warm emotions.

Why is it so important to “speak” someone’s love language in any kind of relationship?
The deepest emotional need we have is the need to feel loved by the significant people in our lives. If you’re a child, that’s your parents, or someone that serves as your parent, and if you’re married, it’s a spouse. Friends are also significant people in our lives. If we genuinely feel loved by these significant people, life is beautiful and we are able to process the normal struggles of life. If we do not feel loved, life can get pretty dark. That is why it is important to learn how to communicate love in a way the other person feels that love. You can sincerely love somebody, but if you’re not speaking their love language, they won’t necessarily feel loved. That’s why the love language concept is so important. When you do not speak the right language, you can be sincere but miss each other.

In what ways do you think understanding a child’s love language and speaking it regularly influences the child?
Understanding a child’s love language helps parents communicate love in a way that the child feels loved. Although all parents love their children, not all children feel loved. There are three main ways that speaking a child’s love language can affect the child in a positive way. First of all, it interfaces with the child’s anger. A child who does not feel loved will exhibit more anger than the child who feels loved.

It also interfaces with discipline. All parents need to discipline their children using clear rules and clear consequences when those rules are broken. If the child does not feel loved and you administer the discipline, the child will likely rebel against the discipline. If the child does feel loved, he will likely receive the discipline in a positive way, which is what we want. We’re not out to hurt our children, we’re out to help them. Discipline is designed for their benefit. It is essential they feel loved when you discipline.

The third thing it interfaces with is the child’s learning. A child who feels loved by the parents is open to learning more from the parents. Actually, many public schools have used my book, The Five Love Languages for Children, in teacher workshops. If the child feels loved by the teacher, the child is much more open to learning from the teacher. If not, they will be resistant to what the teacher is trying to teach. It works the same way in the home.

You’ve written books about all kinds of relationships: marriages, friendships, parent-child, even relationships with your in-laws. What do you see as the one defining characteristic for healthy relationships across the board?
I think there are two keys to healthy relationships. The first is that the individuals in the relationship genuinely love each other. That is, they care about the wellbeing of the other person. I am not talking necessarily about romantic love; it could be friendship. That is a fundamental in any healthy relationship.

The second key is that we deal with our failures effectively. None of us are perfect. We all say and do things that hurt the people we love. When that happens, we have to know how to apologize sincerely. When we do those two things: have a genuine attitude of love toward the other person and deal with failures effectively, a relationship can grow and mature.

As social creatures, each of us desires to love and be loved. Sometimes we slip into the mindset that our relationships will maintain themselves, or that feelings of love and good intentions will sustain us. The truth is that all relationships require effort. By making the daily decision to love and consciously speaking that love in ways that the significant people in our lives best understand it, we show our friends, families and spouses that they are exceedingly important to us—and always worth the effort.

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