What to Do with Your Fifteen Hours

of Undivided Attention

Willard F. Harley, Jr., PhD


One of my basic rules for marriage, the Policy of Undivided Attention, gives many of the couples that I counsel fits.  They have a very difficult time applying it to their marriages for the reasons that I will be discussing.  So, I am writing this article for you if you’ve found this rule to be difficult to follow.

The Policy of Undivided Attention reads: Give your spouse your undivided attention a minimum of fifteen hours each week, using the time to meet the emotional needs of affection, sexual fulfillment, intimate conversation, and recreational companionship.

In other words, I encourage couples to continue to do what they did when they created their romantic love for each other:  Meet each other’s most intimate emotional needs.  These needs when met make the largest Love Bank deposits for both spouses and tend to keep their Love Bank balances above the romantic love threshold.

Two of these needs, affection and intimate conversation, tend to be most important for women, and the other two, sexual fulfillment and recreational companionship, tend to be most important for men.  When all four emotional needs are met on a date, large Love Bank deposits are made in the accounts of both spouses.

Each Intimate Emotional Need Requires Consideration When Planning a Date

Before marriage, all four intimate emotional needs are usually met on a date.  The couple is affectionate toward each other, they talk intimately together, they plan a recreational activity, and there is also an important sexual component to the date.  That way, both spouses are likely to enjoy the experience and look forward to their next date.

But after marriage, a couple is tempted to discontinue “dating,” or at least curtail its frequency.  So, the intimate emotional needs met before marriage are not met together as on a date, but rather, separately when time or desire allows. Claiming little time for official “dates,” a husband often wants to have sex without taking much time for his wife’s need for affection and intimate conversation.  A wife, on the other hand, tries to engage in intimate conversation without taking time for sex.

But even when a date is planned, their definitions of a romantic evening together can change from what it was before marriage.  A wife might like a romantic evening to begin by receiving a small gift and card expressing affection followed by dinner and dancing filled with interesting conversation.  A husband, on the other hand, might prefer the date to consist of watching football on TV with sex during halftime.  When one spouse’s need is met without meeting the other’s needs, resentment often follows.  So, a date that is designed to meet all four intimate emotional needs is fulfilling for both spouses, making them both look forward to the next date.

The idea that all four emotional needs should be met on a date may sound too clinical to consider, especially when their dating before marriage seemed to involve very little planning.  You probably didn’t discuss how you would be meeting all four of each other’s intimate emotional needs when you were dating.  It just happened.  But now that you are married, your dates probably leave out one or more of the needs, leaving one or both of you somewhat frustrated.

Recreational activities are most likely to be planned.  But how and when you show affection on a date, engage in intimate conversation, and make love all should be addressed as carefully so that you can create a predictably enjoyable dating experience.

Since I recommend that all four of the intimate emotional needs be met on a date, you will probably need to schedule at least three to four hours to make sure that they are all represented.  That way, both husband and wife find the date to be romantic.  She usually enjoys the affection and conversation most, and he usually enjoys sexual fulfillment and recreational companionship most.

Dates Before and After Marriage

When my wife, Joyce, and I dated, I would usually call her up a few hours before the date, and ask her if she would like me to pick her up to go out.  She would almost always say, “I’d love it.” We often played tennis, but I didn’t say where we would be going or what we would be doing, because I didn’t know for certain myself.  I just wanted to spend time with her, and she wanted to spend time with me.  It didn’t really make much difference in what we were planning to do.  We were in love.

After we married, Joyce started to express her opinion regarding what we would be doing on a date.  She explained to me that while we were dating, she didn’t care where we went, just so that we could be together.  But since we were now together without having to date, she wanted to help decide what we would be doing.  She really didn’t enjoy playing tennis that much and wanted to know where we were going.  So, tennis and rides to I-didn’t-know-where-until-I-got-there had to go.

At that point in our marriage, we faced a choice, one that I realize now was crucial in determining if the romantic love we had cultivated while dating would be sustained in marriage.  Would we spend the same amount of time dating but doing what we both enjoyed, or would we spend less time dating and more time doing what we enjoyed doing without each other?

I had many male friends who liked to play tennis or venture forth into places unknown.  I could have done what I enjoyed most with them.  I don’t think that Joyce would have objected because she had female friends who loved to shop at a moment’s notice.

But instead of doing what we enjoyed doing most without each other, we chose to stick with each other and find new activities that would replace the old.  Our dating time remained the same as it was prior to our marriage, and still does, but our activities changed.  As a result, after 54 years of marriage, we are still in love with each other.

It wasn’t just recreational activities that had to be changed after we were married.  It was also how we met the other intimate emotional needs for each other that required discussion.  It’s partly because of the way we decided to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs that we have met them consistently throughout our marriage.

If either of us had felt we were sacrificing our own enjoyment for the pleasure of the other person, our dating would not have been sustainable.  We would have come up with excuses to do something else with that time.  But throughout our lives together, our dating time has been the most enjoyable time of our week, something we wouldn’t miss for anything.

Planning or Even Having a Date Depends on Love Bank Balances

Quite frankly, being in love makes it much easier for Joyce and me to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs while we are on a date.  I have a plaque in front of my desk that reads, “The Truth Is, I’d Rather Do Nothing with You Than Something with Anyone Else.” That says it quite nicely.

If you’re in love with each other, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out how to be affectionate, talk intimately, make love, and engage in an activity during a date.  But when you’ve fallen out of love, the task becomes much more challenging.  It is even more challenging if Love Bank balances have fallen below zero. For these couples, the plaque would read, “I’d rather do nothing with someone else than do anything with you.”

So, the question of what to do with your time for undivided attention is not easily answered for all couples because it ultimately depends on Love Bank balances.  When it’s overflowing, it doesn’t take much creativity to find mutually enjoyable ways to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs.  But when it’s fallen below the romantic love threshold, or below zero, special thought must be given to this issue if your time together is to be mutually enjoyable.  And in some cases where Love Bank balances are below zero, time for undivided attention should even be temporarily suspended.

In this article, I’ll focus attention on three Love Bank balances:  1) Above the romantic love threshold, 2) above zero, but below the romantic love threshold, and 3) below zero.

And I’ll add a complicating, but essential, factor to our discussion:  Spouses with unequal Love Bank balances.  That actually leaves us with six categories to discuss:  1) Both spouses in love, 2) one spouse in love and the other not in love but above a zero balance, 3) one spouse in love and the other below a zero balance, 4) both spouses not in love, but above a zero balance, 5) one spouse above zero and the other below zero, and 6) both spouses below zero.

How do you know which of these six categories apply to you?  Many years ago, I devised a test that measures the degree of attraction between spouses.  I use that test to this day because it has proven to be a very accurate measure of romantic love when the questions are answered honestly.  I call it the Love Bank Inventory.  Some of the questions in this test are:

  • Do you usually have a good feeling whenever you think about your spouse?
  • Would you rather be with your spouse than anyone else?
  • Do you enjoy telling your spouse your deepest feelings and most private experiences?
  • Do you feel “chemistry” between you and your spouse?
  • Does your spouse bring out the best in you?

A “definitely yes” answer to these questions indicates that your spouse’s account in Love Bank has breached the romantic love threshold:  you are in love.  A “probably yes” answer might mean that your spouse’s account is above zero, but you are not in love.  But a “probably no” or definitely no” answer is a good indication that the balance has fallen below zero.

  1. When Both Spouses Are in Love

A couple in love has very little conflict when it comes to enjoying their time together.  While the meeting of all four intimate emotional needs, especially after marriage, may involve some discussion to get it just right, spouses in love usually give each other plenty of leeway.  But that can be a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because there is such a wide range of acceptable ways for them to meet each other’s needs when they’re both in love.  But it’s a curse because many of those ways only work when they’re in love.  They don’t realize that their emotions are making it easy for them to meet each other’s needs.  When that emotional factor is taken away, it’s not as easy anymore.

When both spouses are in love, the four intimate emotional needs seem to blend into each other when they take time for undivided attention.  Create the opportunity and it will happen.  The most important part of the plan is scheduling the time.  The rest of the date usually takes care of itself with a few minor alterations.

So, the primary problem that couples in love have with the Policy of Undivided Attention is scheduling the time for it.

My advice to such couples is for them to appreciate how easy it is to maintain their love for each other if they simply take the time to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs.  And they have the time, even if they find themselves pressured by work, children, housekeeping and other responsibilities.

There are 168 hours in a week (24x7), 56 hours spent sleeping (8x7), 14 hours getting ready for the day in the morning and getting ready for bed in the evening (2x7), and 50 hours working and getting to and from work.  If 15 hours of undivided attention is scheduled into the week, 33 hours are left for everything else you do that is important to you.  That’s plenty of time to be with your children, attend church, have a hobby, and even time to spend by yourself.  Clearly, if you prioritize your time together, the time is there for you to do it.

If you don’t have a financial budget, it’s likely that you will spend your income in ways that don’t reflect your priorities.  Purchasing items of lesser importance now will prevent you from having what you most need and want later.

The same can be said for a time budget.  Unless you schedule your week with your priorities in mind, you will find yourself wasting some of your time.  And what could be a more important priority than to maintain your feeling of love for each other?  

I’ve found that couples in love who date, and married couples in love, usually spend a minimum of fifteen hours a week for undivided attention.  They take that amount of time to be affectionate, intimately conversant, recreational, and sexual toward each other.  They don’t let other responsibilities get in the way of their romantic relationship.

  1. When One Spouse Is in Love and the Other Spouse Is in “Like”

Love Bank deposits are made when emotional needs are met.  But Love Bank withdrawals can also be made when you do something to make your spouse unhappy.  If what you do is a habit, I call it a Love Buster because that’s what it does:  It ruins romantic love.  Selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, angry outbursts, dishonesty, independent behavior, and annoying habits are the ways that spouses make substantial withdrawals from their Love Bank accounts.

But there is another, more insidious, way to make Love Bank withdrawals:  Love Bank administrative fees.  Just as your bank can charge you a monthly service charge for having an account, your Love Bank account can also be robbed of love units for simply being there.  It’s like a small leak. Over time your account will diminish, even if you avoid Love Busters.

So, to stay above the romantic love threshold, you must continually make Love Bank deposits.  If you don’t take time to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs, eventually you’ll lose the feeling of romantic love.  By choosing to spend most of your leisure time apart, or deciding that you’re career or care for children is too important to plan time together for undivided attention, you will innocently stop making the Love Bank deposits that are essential in keeping your balance above the romantic love threshold.

When you allow other responsibilities to prevent you from meeting each other’s most important emotional needs, you will inevitably lose the feeling of love for each other.  That’s a fact.  But most couples don’t consider that possibility because they feel that their feeling of love will last forever, even if they neglect each other for a while. All too often, innocent reasons cause spouses to go through life in a loveless, unromantic relationship.

Being in love is unmistakable to those who experience it.  It is an incredible attraction to someone of the opposite sex.  It makes you feel as if you were meant for each other – soul mates.  You would rather be with the person you love than to be with anyone else or do anything else.

But when a spouse’s Love Bank balance drops below the romantic love threshold, as long as the balance is above zero, the powerful attraction of romantic love is not felt, but it is attraction nonetheless.  A spouse likes the other spouse.  Instead of being in love, he or she is “in like.”

The powerful instinct to meet the four intimate emotional needs when in love is not as powerful when a spouse is in like.  You don’t mind meeting those needs, but you find yourself working at it, rather than it flowing from you almost effortlessly.

So, how should you spend time for undivided attention when one spouse is in love and the other spouse is in like?

A date should be planned more carefully than when both spouses are in love.  And more attention should be paid to meeting all four of the intimate emotional needs, especially for the spouse who is no longer in love.

The spouse who is still in love will have a much easier time meeting the other spouse’s emotional needs on a date because he or she will get plenty of instinctive help.  A husband in love will find it to be rather easy to be affectionate and to engage in intimate conversation.  A wife in love will have little to keep her from making love and enjoying a recreational activity with her husband.

But as soon as a Love Bank balance drops below the romantic love threshold, the instinct to meet the other spouse’s emotional needs is seriously affected.  It’s just not as easy anymore.

So, a spouse in like will enjoy the company of the spouse in love, and will agree to go on dates, but not be as motivated to meet that spouse’s emotional needs.

For spouses in this situation, the spouse in love should make sure that dating is frequent enough to make deposits that bring his or her account balance in the other spouse’s Love Bank above the romantic love threshold.  When that happens, the spouse in like becomes a spouse in love.  The instinct to meet the other’s spouse’s emotional needs returns and the extra effort required subsides.  The Policy of Undivided Attention helps guarantee that outcome.

But the spouse in like should try to help out by communicating his or her temporary difficulty in meeting the other’s emotional needs and ask that spouse to make it easier to do.  Otherwise, that spouse may fall out of love when his or her emotional needs are not being met.  The spouse in like should also communicate ways that their own emotional needs can be met more effectively, thereby raising the Love Bank balance above the romantic threshold more quickly.

As a rule, even when they are in love, most wives want their husbands to take initiative to set up the date, when it would happen and what you would do.  It’s more romantic that way.  And that’s especially true if the wife has lost the feeling of love, but still enjoys being with her husband.  A husband in love who has his wife’s agreement as to the details, and then makes all of the arrangements creates dates sure to be enjoyable for both.  If he meets her intimate emotional needs, before long her Love Bank balance will rise above the romantic love threshold, and it will become clear to him that she feels just the same way toward him as he does for her.

  1. When Both Spouses Are in Like.

Spouses with Love Bank balances above zero but below the romantic love threshold will not have much difficulty enjoying their time for undivided attention because they like each other.  But they will both find that meeting each other’s intimate emotional needs will take more effort.  They want their own emotional needs to be met, but have trouble meeting the other spouse’s emotional needs.  Faced with that dilemma, they are tempted to take shortcuts.

A husband on a date will want to have sex without putting much effort into meeting his wife’s need for affection and intimate conversation.  A wife, on the other hand, will want him to engage in intimate conversation without taking time for sex.

So, what I just recommend for a spouse in love and a spouse in like would apply here.  But in this situation, both spouses need to help each other breach the romantic love threshold.  Their instincts won’t be as much help as they would be if they were in love.  But if they give each other guidance in making it easier and more effective to meet each other’s emotional needs, and at the same time putting more effort into meeting those needs, they can help each other breach the romantic love threshold.  From then on it’s clear sailing.

  1. When One Spouses Is in Love and the Other Is in “Dislike”

Just as our emotions encourage us to meet the intimate emotional needs of those we love, our emotions also discourage us from meeting the intimate emotional needs of those we dislike.  If your spouse’s account in your Love Bank is below zero, and you are encouraged to meet his or her intimate emotional needs, you will find your emotions fighting you every step of the way.

When you are in like, you don’t mind meeting your spouse’s emotional need:  It’s just not as instinctive as when you are in love.  You can do it, but it takes more effort.  But when you are in “dislike,” it seems to be impossible.

While your emotions will discourage you from trying to meet your spouse’s emotional needs, when you are in dislike, the Love Busters that I mentioned earlier, now seem instinctive.  It becomes very difficult for you to avoid them.  Instead of conveying a desire to care for your spouse, you convey an unwillingness to care. 

So, how does that affect the way you spend time for undivided attention? It will obviously be a challenge for both spouses.  The spouse in love will try to draw the spouse in dislike into romantic settings only to be met with stiff resistance.  How long can that last before the spouse in love loses that feeling?  Love Bank balances can drop very fast when the one you’re with dislikes you.

Unless the spouse in dislike can rise above their emotional reactions to give the spouse in love a chance to make Love Bank deposits, I usually don’t recommend time for undivided attention.  It should be suspended until the Love Busters that created the negative balance has been eliminated by the spouse who is in love.

But how can it be that a spouse in love engages in Love Busters?  Doesn’t being in love make it almost impossible to hurt the one you love?

False assumptions about marriage can do it.  Demands, disrespect, and anger can be perpetrated by a spouse who is in love if that spouse assumes that he or she is in charge, and it’s the only way to get a job done.  While it’s not as common in spouses in love, I’ve witnessed these Love Busters in husbands who think they have the right, even the responsibility, to control their wives.  And in many cases, the wife agrees with them.  They put up with their husband’s controlling and abusive behavior thinking that it’s the way it should be.

Even if the wife agrees with his right to control her, the effect of such control makes massive withdrawals in his account in her Love Bank.  The end result is for his account to fall below zero, and in many cases, far below zero.

Another Love Buster that a spouse in love can commit is independent behavior, where he or she behaves as if the other spouse doesn’t exist.  Activities are planned and executed without consideration of the other spouse’s interests and feelings.  As is the case with demands, disrespect, and anger, a spouse in love who engages in independent behavior is more likely to be the husband.  He feels that he has the right to make decisions for “the family” and should not need to consult his wife in such matters.  Again, she may agree that he has the right to make final decisions as he is the head of the household.

But as in the case of demands, disrespect, and anger, the effect of independent behavior is not mitigated by her decision to let him make independent decisions.  It hurts her nonetheless and causes his account in her Love Bank to fall below zero.

So, when I find a spouse in love married to a spouse in dislike, I usually assume that it is well-intentioned Love Busters that are at the root of the problem.  And in almost all cases, it’s the husband in love and the wife in dislike.  My immediate reaction is to try to convince the husband that his demands, disrespect, angry outbursts, and independent behavior must come to an end if his marriage is to survive.  If he follows my advice, it doesn’t take too long (six months to a year) before his account in his wife’s Love Bank rises above zero, and she is willing to let him meet her emotional needs in their time for undivided attention.

  1. When One Spouses Is in Like and the Other Is in “Dislike”

When neither spouse is in love, but they both like each other, it’s difficult to motivate either of them to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs.  They want their own needs met, but are not very motivated to meet the other person’s needs.  With a little effort on both spouse’s part, however, they can push their Love Bank balances above the romantic love threshold which makes meeting each other’s emotional needs much easier.

But when one spouse is in dislike, they are not only unwilling to meet their spouse’s intimate emotional needs, but they don’t even want their own needs met.  So, it’s incumbent upon the spouse in like to address their Love Busters that are responsible for so many Love Bank withdrawals before they try to spend any time for undivided attention.

He or she should not expect their spouse to be very cooperative, and the meeting of intimate emotional needs should be temporarily out of the question.  In this situation, coaching is highly recommended for both spouses.  The spouse in like should address Love Busters quickly and effectively and the spouse in dislike should give the other spouse a chance to prove themselves.

  1. When Both Spouses Are in “Dislike”

Love Busters have ruined the relationship of these spouses, and unless they are both willing to take responsibility for their own failures, the marriage cannot usually be saved.  Coaching is usually essential, and spouses should be seen individually to motivate each of them to stop hurting each other.  For these couples, until the Love Busters can be eliminated, spending fifteen hours a week for undivided attention is out of the question.  Neither spouse wants their needs met nor do they want to meet the other’s needs.

Concluding Thoughts

A romantic relationship is essential if marriage is to be fulfilling for both spouses.  But it’s only possible when both spouses are meeting each other’s intimate emotional needs:  Affection, sexual fulfillment, intimate conversation, and recreational companionship.  These are the needs met when spouses first fell in love with each other and decided to marry.  They are also the needs that a married couple must meet in order to stay in love.

If a couple neglects each other’s intimate emotional needs after marriage, they not only stop being in a romantic relationship, but their Love Bank accounts drop below the romantic love threshold.  The Love Bank “leaks,” and unless it is continually replenished with love units, romantic love cannot be sustained.

The most common reason for emotional neglect after marriage is that life’s responsibilities – careers, children, financial pressures – come together to convince some couples that they don’t have time to meet each other’s needs.  Without intimate attention, they inevitably fall out of love and into “like.”  While they like each other, they don’t have the same instinctive motivation to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs.  They want their own needs met, but are not as interested in meeting the other’s needs.  That makes it even less likely for them to take the time necessary to meet each other intimate emotional needs.  Even with time available, they can think of other things to do.

But when the Love Busters, selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, angry outbursts, dishonesty, independent behavior, and annoying habits, have infected a marital relationship, the very thought of spending 15 hours for undivided attention sounds repulsive.  Love Busters drive Love Bank balances below zero, making spouses dislike each other.  Their willingness and ability to meet intimate emotional needs are seriously degraded.

So, my general advice to spend time to meet intimate emotional needs in marriage depends on Love Bank balances.  When balances are above zero, and spouses love or like each other, that time together is highly recommended.  But when either or both spouse’s balance falls below zero, primary attention should shift to overcoming Love Busters.  The meeting of intimate emotional needs can then be addressed after Love Busters have been eliminated.

To learn more, we recommend reading His Needs, Her Needs and Love Busters.

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