Love in the Time of COVID-19Dr. Chapman reveals insights about his latest book, “5 Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage... When You're Stuck at Home Together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it much uncertainty and loss, and that combined with outcries against social injustice, has left many feeling enraged and misunderstood. That same insecurity and fear provoked by current events also play out on a personal level when couples see each other’s faults amplified during stay-at-home protocols and social distancing.
Renowned marriage counselor and author Dr. Gary Chapman calls on couples to consider “stop throwing bombs” at one another and find constructive ways to speak to the heart and work as a team. Dr. Chapman wrote this simple guide titled, “5 Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage… When You’re Stuck at Home Together,” to help couples navigate through this unique time in our history.
In this conversation with the “Fight for Good” podcast team, Dr. Chapman reveals insights about this new book.
War Cry: You took the time to write something very appropriate to help people, especially people in marriages, during the COVID-19 crisis. Why did you write this book?
Dr. Chapman: This time has been super different. It changes the whole playing field for couples, and I knew that a lot of them were struggling because they were in a routine, and that routine has shifted. I wanted to give practical ideas on how couples could positively use this time. I was fully aware that many couples were coming into this pandemic already with a fractured relationship. That is, they were not doing well beforehand. This heightened everything and the pressure and stress was causing them to say and do very destructive things. But then I knew other couples had a fairly good marriage. They read my book on love languages and they were loving each other, and I thought that they are going to be okay, but it can still be enhanced. Marriages are either growing or regressing–they never stand still. I was trying to help couples grow during this time.
War Cry: What trends have come out of the COVID-19 experience? Are the predictors true? Are marriages shattering or do you see a strengthening occurring?
Dr. Chapman: I think it depends on what the couple does during this time. Couples who take action and try to do things differently can have a healing time for their marriage. I have said to couples, “If your marriage was already fractured and now you are together and you find yourself seeing the worst in each other and often expressing those words, why not call a truce on throwing verbal bombs at each other?” That is what happens in a troubled marriage because each of them thinks the other person is the problem.
I had a lady last week on the phone say to me, “My husband told me that I was lazy because I did not put the plastic bag back in the trash can when I took the trash out.” I’m thinking to myself, what is wrong with this guy? She took the trash out. When you throw a bomb like that, it explodes in the heart of the other person. This lady was mortified. Maybe for those couples, the place to start is to sign a truce and say, “Honey, here we are at home. We do not know how long this is going to go on. Let’s have a truce to not throw any more bombs at each other.” At least that creates a better atmosphere. Then if you can do that for a week and say, “What about next week? Now that we are not throwing bombs, what if we try to give a compliment to each other every other day this week?” You are replacing the criticism with compliments. You start doing that, and you create a very positive atmosphere between the two of you. You have to start where you are. I know some couples are already in a combat mode, and I am just trying to say, let’s sign a truce and not throw bombs. Maybe in a week or two, we can sign a peace treaty. It will be moving in a positive direction.
War Cry: Loneliness is at epidemic proportions in our society, and this period is certainly exacerbating loneliness for some. In your book, you point out how couples can seize the opportunity in this unique time to build up their life together. While under stress, we are prone to react to things emotionally. What advice would you give about handling our emotions?
Dr. Chapman: I think so. We are emotional creatures and I think it is a reflection of the nature of God because God has emotions. The Bible says God is angry every day with the wicked, but often in our culture, we have exalted emotions. We say I must be true to my feelings although you do not have to follow them. We have both negative and positive feelings and they are determined by the circumstances around us. You can love your spouse and choose to love them even if you have negative feelings toward them. After all, God loves us, even on our worst days. The scripture says the love of God is poured in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, but we can have outside help.
While speaking to one woman, I was encouraging her to give her husband some positive comments. She said, “Well Dr. Chapman, I would love to do that, but to be honest, I can’t think of anything good to say about the man.” I replied, “Well, does he ever take a shower?” And she said “Well, yes.” I said, “How often?” She said, “Every day.” And I said, “Well if I were you, I would start there. ’Honey, thank you for taking a shower.’”
The thing is, if you speak the other person’s love language, even if you have negative feelings, and you do it consistently over time, something happens inside that person because you are touching them at a very deep emotional level. When they feel that you sincerely love them, they are far more likely to reciprocate. It is just like the Bible says, we love God because God first loved us. We just responded to His love. The same principle works in human relationships. If one person in the marriage takes the initiative with God’s help to speak the other person’s love language consistently for six months, I can’t guarantee you that they are going to reciprocate, but I can tell you there is a pretty good chance they will because love stimulates love.
War Cry: Often in relationships, the hurt runs so deep that one or both dig in their heels and refuse to change because they think it is undeserved. What can one do in those situations?
Dr. Chapman: Let’s face it. It might well be undeserved, but that is what grace is all about. We are following the example of God. We did not deserve what He did for us, and what Christ did for us on the cross is undeserved. So, you think that you have a spouse that does not deserve to be loved, but you are God’s agent. Let God pour His love into your heart, you be His agent for expressing love to your spouse. And if you do it in a meaningful way—which is where the love languages help—you are going to stimulate something inside of them and you are going to feel better about yourself. Anytime you extend grace to your spouse, you feel good about yourself because you are doing a godly thing.
War Cry: You point out our basic need is to be loved and appreciated. That seems so simple and sincere. Why do we have such trouble making this a priority?
Dr. Chapman: Because by nature we are all self-centered. If we have a disagreement in a marriage, each of us thinks the other person is the problem. If the marriage is troubled, maybe the place to start would be for you to sit down with God and say to God, “Lord, you know my marriage and you know my spouse, but I know that I am not perfect. So, what I want to know is where am I failing in my marriage? What have I done wrong through the years?” That is a prayer God will answer. You get your pencil ready and start writing them down. He will answer that prayer. Then you ask God to forgive you and He always will. Then you go to your spouse and say, “Honey, I have been thinking about us, since we have been here together in the house. I know we have had a rough journey, and I know that I blamed you so many times, but I have asked God to show me where I have been failing you, and He gave me a pretty good list. If you have a minute, I would like to share these with you and ask if you can forgive me for all these failures.” I cannot tell you they will forgive you automatically, but I can tell you this, they are going to walk away and think, “Wow! This is different. All I have heard for years is criticism. Now they are apologizing to me.” God can use your action to touch their heart, and maybe in a week they will come back and say, “Honey, I am the one that needs to apologize.” Now, you will tear the wall down. You will do something really good and positive. But see, one of you has to start it and by nature, we do not want to start it, because in our mind we know that they are the problem. If they would change, things would be fine. Maybe you are only five percent of the problem, but if you start with your five percent, you are beginning to create a different climate. You are tearing the wall down on your side. Then we will see what God does in their heart.
War Cry: You write that everything that has ever happened to us is stored in the human brain and sometimes even after we have forgiven, the memory comes back. What do we do with those memories and emotions?
Dr. Chapman: There is an old saying, “If you have not forgotten, you have not forgiven.” That is not true. These things are stored in the brain, even if your spouse apologizes and even if you choose to forgive them. Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling, to remove the barrier. Even if you do that, the memories will still come back. When the memory comes back, the emotions often come back. Take those to God and say, “You know what I am remembering today, and you know what I am feeling again, but I thank you that I have forgiven that. Help me to do something good today.” You acknowledge what you are thinking and what you are feeling, but you do not allow that to control your behavior. You go out and do something positive towards your spouse and you continue on a growth pattern.
War Cry: What role does our attitude play in practicing and living out the love languages?
Dr. Chapman: Attitude plays a huge role. We don’t control our emotions. Emotions grab us and become our emotional response to circumstances. We do not choose them, but we do control our attitude. Our attitude is our fixed way of thinking, and there are fundamentally two attitude extremes. One is an attitude of love and one is the attitude of selfishness.
Selfishness is that the basic attitude that says, “What am I getting out of this?” That is when people say, “I’m not happy in this marriage. You are just not making me happy.” Their attitude is self-centered. It is selfish. Love is the attitude that says, “I’m in the world to bless the lives of other people. I am in this marriage with an attitude of helping my spouse become the person that they believe God wants them to be.” That attitude of love is looking for opportunities to reach out and help that other person. The attitude of selfishness is often demanding of that other person. Just like the guy who was complaining about the trash bag. That is selfishness! She did not do what he thought she ought to do. Human nature is selfish, but we choose either to be controlled by the old sinful nature or to be controlled by the spirit of God, which is a spirit of an attitude of love.
War Cry: In the last chapter, you emphasize a routine of love; a routine of just sitting down and listening to one another in the marriage. How do you envision that?
Dr. Chapman: What I call this is, “let us have a daily sit down and listen time.” Normally we say, “Let us sit down and talk,” which means I have some things on my mind I want to tell you. By calling it, “a sit down and listen time,” you change the dynamic of the conversation. You offer what you each want to say and then you both listen. People say, “Well, we have been together all day. I know what they have done.” But you do not know what they have been thinking or feeling throughout the day. So, what do we say, “Honey, listen. Tell me some of the thoughts you have had today and tell me some of the things you have been feeling.” When they are talking, you are listening. You are not sitting there wondering “how am I going to respond?” You are the listener. I am listening to you trying to understand what your thoughts have been today, what your feelings have been today, and I listen long enough that I can honestly say, “You know, honey, I can see how you would feel that way. That makes sense.” Then you get to share your thoughts and your feelings and they listen to you, and they share with you an affirmation of your thoughts and feelings. This builds emotional bonding between the two of you.
We can be in the same house and still not feel bonded because you are doing something, I am doing something, and the kids are doing something. We are in the same space, but we are not connected. It can be 15 or 20 minutes, but just time to sit down and listen to each other. If there’s conflict you can say to each other, “Okay, we disagree. How can we solve the problem?” You spend your energy solving the problem rather than spending your energy trying to win an argument. I have sometimes said this, “If you win an argument with your spouse, they lost. It is no fun to live with a loser. So why would you create one?” People destroy their marriages by arguing. We build marriages by listening to each other’s perspective and trying to understand each other and affirming it.
War Cry: You point out in your book that it is a lot easier to confront the world when a couple is in sync and working as a team. How can people find out what their love languages are?
Dr. Chapman: There are three simple questions that you can ask about yourself or the other person. One is, how do you naturally respond to other people? If you are a person who is always giving other people words of affirmation and encouraging words, that is probably your love language, because we tend to speak our language. What does your spouse typically do? Are they always giving people pats on the back or high fives? Maybe a physical touch is their language. The second question is, what do I complain about? Or what do they complain about? Because the complaint reveals the love language. If a wife is saying to a husband, “I just feel like we do not spend any time together even though we are living in the same house,” she is telling him her love language is quality time. And the third question is, what do I request most often? Or what do they request most often? If your spouse is saying rather regularly, “Honey, can we take a walk after dinner?” They are asking you for quality time. They just want to be with you. Or if they are saying, “Honey, you know that gift you were thinking about getting me, this would be a good time to get it.” They are asking you for gifts. Of course, they could go online to fivelovelanguages.com, there is a free quiz that you can take. Over forty million people have taken that quiz. There is one for married couples. There is one for children. There is one for teenagers. There is one for single adults. It will also help you discover your primary love language.
War Cry: What is the secret for a couple to work as a team?
Dr. Chapman: A married couple is a team. On an athletic team players have different roles, but everyone has the same objective. We want to win! In a marriage, our objective is, we want to win! And for Christians, we want to accomplish God’s plan for our lives together.
But the playing field has been changed with the pandemic and being at home. The question is, who can do what? Some of us are better equipped than others. For example, I am not equipped to cook. I told my wife, “Honey if I did not have you, I guess I would go to the cafeteria three times a day.” Fortunately, she likes to cook. So that is her part of the team. We want to use our strengths to have a good team, so we can have a winning situation out of this.
War Cry: What principles in this book can be used as when returns to the “New Normal.”
Dr. Chapman: I do think that these five simple ideas can apply when we are not in a pandemic. These are ideas that right now when we are at home together, will help us make the most of this time with their principles and practical ideas that can service for a lifetime when things do get back to somewhat normal.
Gary Chapman, PhD, is the author of the bestselling “The Five Love Languages”® series, which has sold more than 12 million worldwide and has been translated into 50 languages.