Dr Harley on marriage, counselling and relationships


Rohan: As some of you may know, I just got married this July. A few months prior to marriage, I decided to read a couple of the best marital relationship books available. Dr Harley’s book “His Needs Her Needs” was very highly recommended on the internet and it ended up on my Kindle reading list very soon. As soon as I began reading his book, I realized this is a book that I must read together with my wife. So, we waited till our honeymoon to read the book together and it turned out to be a wonderful way to really understand each other and what we valued – we knew each other pretty well after 7 years together but this book helped us a lot by giving us a framework with which to think about how we could enjoy the rest of our lives in each other’s company.

Of course, I reached out to Dr Harley post our honeymoon and enjoyed the chat. Hope you enjoy it as much I did! 

About Dr Harley

Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D. is best known as author of the internationally best selling book, His Needs, Her Needs: Building An Affair-proof Marriage. Over three million copies have been purchased, and it is available in twenty-two foreign translations. Dr. Harley earned a Ph.D. degree in psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1967 and has been a Licensed Psychologist in Minnesota since 1975. For the first ten years after earning his degree, he taught psychology at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. During those years, he was also a frustrated part-time marriage counselor with little success in helping couples.

In 1973 he discovered that he was not alone in his failure to save marriages — almost everyone in the marital therapy profession were also failing. So he spent the next two years designing an entirely new approach (see How Dr. Harley Learned to Save Marriages). When his success rate skyrocketed in 1977, he resigned from his teaching position to counsel full-time. Over the next ten years his solo practice developed into the largest network of mental health clinics in Minnesota (thirty-two locations) with over one hundred psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and chemical dependency counselors working with him to provide a full range of mental health services. He became the exclusive provider of mental health and chemical dependency services in ten counties, and had offices in other counties as well.

By 1988 he found himself spending almost all of his time administering his clinics, and very little time doing what he enjoyed most — improving his marital therapy program. So he began turning his clinics over to the counselors who worked with him, and the ownership of his last clinic was transferred in 1993. Since then, he has written 16 more books and hundreds of articles. Dr. Harley and his wife, Joyce, are actively involved in the Marriage Builders® Online Program, which introduces couples to his highly successful plan for marital recovery. An online seminar offered by Dr. Harley kicks off a one-year home study program that includes personal accountability. He supervises the progress of those who enroll, and answers their questions on a special Marriage Builders Weekend section of the Forum.

Dr. and Mrs. Harley have been married for 47 years and live in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. They have two adult children, who are now working with them as marriage coaches, and four grandchildren.

Interview transcript


Rohan:  It would be great to hear your story.  I got snippets of it from the book and I know you’ve been a counselor for a very long time.  It would be great to get a sense of why you ended up doing what you did and why you ended up writing books.  How did it all come about?

Dr. Harley:  Basically, I started out taking an English class in college, and got an F.  English was not my forte.  I was an engineering student, and the only thing that prevented me from becoming summa cum laude were my English classes.  My teacher thought I was such a horrific writer that I should do something other than write.  That’s where my writing history begins.  I wrote a lot.  That’s a good lesson for people who want to become writers.  The point is that I didn’t start out with a great deal of talent, but I wrote a lot.  Every day I wrote something, and I wrote articles, I wrote ideas that I had.  A lot of things that I wrote were nonsense, foolishness, or poorly written.  Eventually, I got better at writing.

By 1984, I had written maybe 30 published articles and I had actually written a book that was published but nobody bought it. One day though, somebody came to me and said that they wanted me to publish something that I had written.  I gave it as a part of a lecture that was transcribed.  They wanted to publish it.  I said, “Sure, go right ahead.”

It actually turned out to be His Needs Her Needs.  Basically I just said, “Fine, if you want to publish this go right ahead.”

I was invited to be on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show.  I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her, but she was a very popular talk show television host.  It appealed to women.  I got on her show.  I was the only man in sight.  In the studio there were 200 women in the audience.  Every camera person was a woman.  The people who were on the panel with me were all women.  I was the only male in the entire place.  The topic was infidelity.  I wrote in my book His Needs Her Needs that infidelity is a scourge.  It is something to be avoided at all costs.  The other two women who were with me were saying that infidelity was a good idea for women.  I was the only representative saying that it is a bad idea.  When my little talk was over, I got a standing ovation.

Sally raised my book to the TV audience and said, “If I had had this book 15 years ago, my life would have been much better than it is today.  I recommend that you all read this book.”

No bookstore had my book in it.  It was basically a book that nobody had ever heard of before.  Within three days there were orders for over ten thousand books.  The publisher had only printed two thousand.  They got to work – printing books like crazy, getting the books out there.  Ever since the book has sold a minimum of about 100,000 a year; many times more than that.  Over 3.5 million have actually sold by now and it is still selling about as many books as it sold when it was published back in 1986.  Since then I’ve written 18 books altogether, and none of them are as popular as His Needs Her Needs.



Rohan:  Why did you pick His Needs Her Needs?  Was it because you were doing a lot of marital counseling?  As a man how did you feel qualified enough to write about her needs?

Dr. Harley:  I had done a lot of marriage counseling.  By the time this book came out, I was operating in 34 mental health clinics.  I’m a clinical psychologist, and I became quite good at helping people with their marital problems.  The whole business of the needs of men and the needs of women were things that I was spending a great deal of time studying.  I did a whole series of scientific studies on what men needed and what women needed.  I became very good at identifying the causes of romantic love and what creates romantic love.  I became an expert in helping people develop romantic love.  I have this background and that is why I wrote the book that became His Needs Her Needs.



Rohan:  Compared to what it was ten years ago, we have many more live-in relationships.  We have less people choosing to get married, or marriage is being pushed later.  How important is marriage as an institution?  Why should people get married, in your opinion?

Dr. Harley:  I addressed that issue in a book that is coming out this fall called He Wins She Wins about the art of marital negotiation.  I encourage people who are watching this to get a hold of that book because I think that it is a very important way to understand what is wrong with marriages today.

The book starts out with the realization that we have had a cultural seat change in the industrial world.  In the first world countries we have now made women equal to men.  This is unprecedented in human history.  Women were equal to men first in America in 1920, that’s 90 years ago.  Basically what we have is a situation where before 1920, women could not vote; women could not serve in a public office.  Women were not considered to be smart enough to do any of those things, and in marriage men owned their wives to some extent.  He owned her, and she had to obey him. 

In the vows that my wife Joyce made to me 50 years ago, she promised to obey me for the rest of her life.  That was in our wedding vow.  Fortunately, I didn’t hold her to it.  She didn’t have to obey me.  We developed in our relationship a very modern marriage, a marriage that was successful under the new terms of marriage which was evolving.  There are a lot of people who are having problems with equality.  You begin with men.  Men when they get married expect their wives to be somewhat obedient.  That isn’t happening anymore.  We don’t have that anymore.  In certain cultures that’s still going on.  All over the world, you still have women obeying men, but not in first world cultures.  We all make women equal to men.

That creates a new problem for marriages, and that is that men have to negotiate with their wives.  Instead of telling their wives what to do and having them obey, they have to come to an agreement.  Men don’t want to do that.  They don’t know how to do it.  Sometimes what they do is sacrifice, where they give their wives whatever it is they want.  Sometimes we call that capitulation.  She gets terribly upset when you don’t agree with her, so you agree with her.

Sometimes, they decide that they’re going to try to force their will upon her.  I call that the dictator approach.  This is when your wife finds you trying to make her do things, and then she comes back and tries to make you do things.  The last is what I call anarchy.  All of a sudden you and your wife start fighting with each other.  You come to realize that this is no way to live so you go your way, and she goes her way.  You’re still married, but you make your own choices and you ignore each other’s wishes.

I call all of those strategies win-lose strategies.  Those are the most common strategies in marriages today.  They ultimately lead to the loss of love.  You lose your romantic relationship and in many cases you get divorced.  People look around and say, “Why should I be married when I make my own choices now?  If I try to live with somebody and make my own choices she’ll get mad at me, so I don’t think  I should get married.”

Win-win is the only way couples should negotiate in today’s marriages.  You must come to a win-win solution.  That’s hard to do.  Have you noticed in your short marriage how hard it is to come to an enthusiastic agreement?  It’s a skill set that unless you learn it, you will not have a successful marriage.  I’ve been training people how to do what Joyce and I have been doing for fifty years.  We’ve been married for fifty years now and are happily married and in love, but we make our choices with each other in mind and we make our choices together. 

What’s happening to marriages today and do we need them?  Marriages are suffering terribly.  People are getting divorced at unprecedented levels and they are not marrying at unprecedented levels.  In other words, they’re staying single.  Here in America we now have a majority of single adults.  Why marry?  Here’s my basic thesis.  Men and women need each other.  Women are just as smart as men, but they have a different perspective than men.  If you can get a man and a woman to find an enthusiastic agreement, you come up with a wiser choice than what either one of them could have come up with.  I think men and women are made to be together.  They’re made to be together physically, but they’re also made to be together emotionally and mentally.  It’s much harder to do today than it was 100 years ago. 



Rohan:  Another point that you kept mentioning in your book is that people go to counselors too late.  Do you feel that this is restricted to marriages alone, or is it just that we don’t like seeking outside help? Do you feel people are more open to counseling today than they were ten years ago?

Dr. Harley:  The problem with marriage counseling is that there are so many bad marriage counselors out there.  In 1965, I read an article that said that only 25% of people who actually went to marriage counselors felt that the counseling did them any good.  An equal amount, 25%, felt that counseling actually hurt their marriage.  There was a 1995 consumer’s report that was done where out of all the mental health counseling that is available, marriage counseling scored the least effective.  Part of the problem is that most people that actually go to a marriage counselor don’t get any help.  And then they tell their friends that it really didn’t help them.  Their parents went to a marriage counselor and ended up getting divorced.  So when they hear the advice that they should see a marriage counselor they say that marriage counselors can do more harm than good, and they don’t know how it’s going to turn out.

Part of the reason that people don’t see marriage counselors as often as they should is that the marriage counselors aren’t very effective in helping them overcome their problems.  What we do at Marriage Builders which is an extremely important service, is we provide counseling without you having to see a counselor.  We do this in a variety of ways.  If you go to the marriagebuilders.com website, you will see a host of articles; you’ll see two-a-day columns.  You’ll see a forum where you can join in and discuss your problems.  Joyce and I have a daily radio show that we do.  This is all free of charge.  So you can sort of tip your toe in the water and kind of see how you feel about it before you actually commit yourself to going into a waiting room and sitting there wondering what the counselor is going to be doing with you.

We have an approach to saving marriages that really doesn’t commit anyone to anything, and by doing that we’re actually reaching millions of people all over the world.  We have people in Singapore calling us and writing to us on a regular basis.  We have people from India, China, Africa, and all over the world who we reach because we don’t require them to do anything but learn.  We want them learning, that’s it.  It’s kind of like what you’re doing.  You want people to learn.  That’s what we’re offering.  Here is a learning experience in how to have a great marriage.  Use your own judgment to see whether you think it’s worthwhile and it didn’t cost you anything to find out. 



Rohan:  Is fidelity or loyalty wired in, or is it a learned trait that we develop?

Dr. Harley:  I think we’re all born to be unfaithful.  If we allow someone of the opposite sex to meet our emotional needs, we risk falling in love with that person.  If anybody of the opposite sex meets our emotional needs, we can fall in love.  We can be in love with three people at once if all three people are meeting our emotional needs.

What we find out a lot of times is that the person who has been unfaithful never thought it would happen to them.  They felt that their ethical values were strong enough to prevent them from actually getting involved with someone else.  We have worked with many religious leaders, politicians who are very conservative, very pro-family, CEO’s of companies where an affair would get them fired, and they all have affairs.  The question is why?  It’s because our emotional response to someone meeting our emotional needs is so powerful that we’re willing to destroy everything we’ve ever built to have that person in our lives.  It makes no sense logically and it has destroyed a lot of people, but people are doing it every day. 

It’s a trait that I think has to do with procreation.  I think we are all made to have babies.  We as men contribute to the having of babies by impregnating women, and women have babies.  This is what infidelity is all about from a procreation point of view.  We’re motivated to have sex.  In order to avoid it, we have to protect our love bank from outside threats.  The way you do that is to avoid people of the opposite sex coming in to meet your emotional needs.  If they meet your emotional need for conversation, or admiration, or physical attractiveness, or a whole host of things, you can fall in love without ever thinking it will happen to you. 

One day you wake up craving this person and by that time your mind starts to think that this is what God had intended, that this is something that’s natural.  You go to your wife and say, “How would you feel about this other person joining us in this marriage?”  Ridiculous ideas, but this is something that we think would be logical because we get so emotionally entrapped.



Rohan:  What do successful marriages repeatedly do right?  What are a few things that you always see?

Dr. Harley:  There are three parts to a successful marriage, and you have to understand that the over-arching concept is that you have to make love bank deposits and avoid love bank withdrawals.  You have to do things to make the other person happy, and you have to avoid things that make the other person unhappy.  There are three ways of doing that.

Number one is you have to know what their emotional needs are, and you have to become an expert at meeting those needs.  In other words, you have to be an expert at making your wife happy.  Do whatever it is that makes her happy.  Chances are she will enjoy your being affectionate with her, she’ll enjoy your talking to her, giving her your undivided attention, and she will enjoy you being honest and open with her.  She will enjoy you being a provider for her, and she’ll enjoy that you are a good father to the children you’re going to be having.  All of that comes together so that she will be in love with you.  You will make her very happy.

Then, you have to avoid making her unhappy.  These are categories that I call love busters.  You can’t make demands on her, you can’t be disrespectful, and you can’t get angry with her.  Not getting angry with her is very tricky.  Don’t ever get angry with her.  You can’t be dishonest with her, you can’t annoy her.  That’s going to be next to impossible.  Basically what she needs to do is tell you something you’re doing is annoying, and you have to take it seriously and try to stop doing it even though at the time you’re going to think, what?  That annoyed you?  You have to make sure you get rid of whatever those things are.

The last is independent behavior.  You don’t just go off and do whatever you please; you talk it over with her first and make sure she’s in agreement with you.  The lifestyle you build as a couple has to be something that’s agreed upon by both of you enthusiastically.  How many children you’re going to have, where you’re going to worship, what kind of a car you drive, when you see your in-laws, and how you spend your money.  All of these issues have to be agreed upon together enthusiastically.

If you do those three things, I call it extraordinary care.  Couples that give each other extraordinary care by meeting each other’s emotional needs, avoiding love busters, and making decisions jointly to create a lifestyle that’s pleasant for both of them, that is extraordinary care and it results in romantic love that lasts for the rest of your lives together.



Rohan:  What is your advice for new couples?  Are there any habits that you feel families benefit from, such as dinners together for example? 

Dr. Harley:  Is this before you have children?



Rohan:  It would be good to get your view on both.

Dr. Harley:  I view those decisions as being idiosyncratic.  In other words, having dinner with the in-laws is very helpful for some families and very destructive for others.  Again, I challenge a couple to come together on the decisions.  Are we going to have your folks over for dinner?  Are we going to go for a bike ride instead?  How are we going to handle these things?

As you know, cultural requirements for families vary greatly all over the world.  You have some families where the parents are a huge factor in decisions that a couple makes.  In other families they are essentially ignored.  The husband and wife have to come to an agreement before they do it, and they should not have a win-lose agreement where one person just puts up with the other person wanting their mom over all the time.  They decide how they’re going to handle this in a way that works for both of them.  That is why I don’t give a whole lot of advice on specifics.  My advice is that whatever it is you do, come to an agreement on it before you do it.  That way the two of you will be very happy together and you’ll be in love.



Rohan:  What is your favorite book?

Dr. Harley:  I have several areas of interest.  One is geology.  I love the history of the earth. Geology Illustrated is a very interesting book, and it was published in the 1960’s.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s still the best book on geology.  I can’t remember the name of the author right now.

Another area that I read a lot on is archaeology.  I love archaeology and human history.  Right now I am into British history and I am studying the kings between William the Conqueror and Henry VIII.  That’s the period that I’m studying right now.

I’m also interested in biblical history.  I’m a Christian, so I have studied the Bible.  I’ve been to Israel.  I’ve been to Jordan.  I never read fiction.  I am always reading facts.  I always want to learn.  I want to learn something that I’ve never seen before or done before.  That’s the kind of person I am.



Rohan:  Do you have any movies or TV series that you enjoy?

Dr. Harley:  Yes, I do.  I love the science channel, and I watch that a great deal.  I love The Game of Thrones.  It is wonderful.  There’s a new series that just started this week called The White Queen.  It’s about the period just before Henry VIII.  It’s a period that I’m very interested in.  That’s a good series too.  Last night I watched Breaking Bad



Rohan:  Why do you like The Game of Thrones?

Dr. Harley:  First of all, the acting is absolutely superb.  They are upset that the author is not writing faster.  They want to get more of these things out because they have become so popular.  The actors are superb.  The script is superb.  They go all over the world to film this stuff and that is also superb.  It’s incredibly creative.



Rohan:  You’ve published 18 books;  you’re busy counseling and running a business and helping people.  What do you do to stay productive?  What are some little habits or routines of yours that help you stay productive, energized, and happy?

Dr. Harley:  I would say that my marriage and my faith are the two most important parts of my life.  I believe that my very good relationship with God is a great source of strength.  My great relationship with my wife is a source of strength.  Those are the two things that bring us happiness in life – our marriage and our faith.  If I counted on anything else to give me happiness, I would be disappointed.  I would say that I gain a great deal of strength from God and my wife.  As a result, I’m also healthy.  I’m over 70, and I’m very healthy.  As long as I am healthy and my brain is functioning properly, I will probably be doing this for the rest of my life.



Rohan:  Is there an inspirational quote or message that inspires you that you would like to share?

Dr. Harley:  First of all, I would like your viewers to know that I am a born-again Christian.  I do believe in God and my relationship with Him is through Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save us from our sins.  I also believe that the message of Christianity is love.  Jesus says that they will know you by your love.  That’s what he told his disciples.  We are identified as a faith by the way we love each other.  Those who don’t love each other aren’t following the Christian faith. There was a period of time in medieval history where people were being killed for religious reasons.   True Christianity doesn’t believe in any of that.  That’s a false Christianity.  I believe that if you know a Christian well, you know that that person cares about other people and will put himself out for other people. 

I think that the most valuable lesson we can learn in life is thoughtfulness by considering other people before we do things and trying to make sure that we are a messenger of help and support for people who need it.  I think that when you learn that lesson, you go through life joyfully.  Life is a joyous experience.  If you don’t learn that lesson and all you care about is yourself, you become very depressed and miserable and you wonder life is really about.  You’ve missed the boat.  Life is all about caring for each other.

Thank you so much for taking the time, Dr Harley!

The Real Leaders Team