It’s the feast day of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop this week (Aug 8) – Australia’s first, and so far, only, saint. She co-founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart – a teaching order of Catholic nuns who were instrumental in the establishment of Catholic education in this country.

One of our favourite sayings of hers was: “Never see a need without trying to do something about it.”

Mary was a woman of practical action, responding with generosity to the educational needs of the poor, to orphans and former women prisoners.

She accomplished a great deal in her sixty-seven years growing the order to 750 women and opening 117 schools with over 12,400 pupils at the time of her death in 1909. She was canonised a century later in October 2010 after the second miraculous healing attributed to her intercession was verified.

Love by meeting needs

We all have needs, not only biological needs like air, water, and food, but also psycho-emotional and spiritual needs, like love, affection, belonging and purpose, to name a few.

When our needs are unmet, we experience discomfort in our body and in our psyche. Common experiences include hunger pangs, shivering, loneliness or anxiety.

Babies express their unmet needs by crying, galvanising the parents (or in our case, grandparents) to frantically search for what the child needs – Milk? Sleep? Or perhaps a hug? It’s not always obvious to the carers or the child and it takes many months for parents to successfully intuit the needs of their newborn.

Conversely, when our needs are satisfied, whether they are biological, psycho-emotional or spiritual, we experience pleasant emotions and bodily responses, like comfort, peace, security, optimism, relaxation.

Even though as adults, and unlike a newborn infant, we can verbalise our thoughts, it’s not always obvious which of our needs require attention when we have uncomfortable emotions and bodily sensations.

For example, many people eat, not because they are hungry, but because they are bored, lonely, or anxious. The need is psycho-emotional, but it manifests as a biological symptom of ‘hunger’.

We see this dynamic in our own life and are working to recognise the psycho-emotional needs that drive us to over-eat, even though we are not physically hungry at the time.

This is one of the benefits of regular reflection – it allows us the time and space to explore our internal life, and thus better identify and articulate our needs accurately.

The Love Bank

When our needs are met consistently by someone, we form an emotional attachment to them and spontaneously desire to reciprocate with some similar gesture.

This is the practical currency of the experience of romantic love. We ‘fall in love’ because this person is meeting so many of our needs, leading us to feel lots of positive emotions in their presence.

This phenomenon has led some marriage educators to talk about the notion of a ‘love bank’ between husband and wife – a metaphorical ledger that increases with credits when a need is met and decreases from debits when a need is ignored or rejected.

While we want to avoid an accounting mindset that keeps a miserly count of who is doing more, the idea illustrates that we can proactively build a reserve of goodwill between us by meeting each other’s needs.

The Love Bank model is the creation of Dr Williard Harley, the Christian author and founder of “Marriage Builders”. His model identifies ten common emotional needs in the marriage relationship that include things like affection, admiration, sexual fulfillment, conversation, financial support and recreational companionship.

‘Love builders’ are gestures that meet our spouse’s emotional needs and so add credit to the love bank. On the flip side, ‘love busters’ are common behaviours that cause direct emotional harm to our spouse and diminish the love bank credit balance.

Harley developed his model after years of careful study and failed attempts in helping couples recover their ailing marriages.

He found that those couples in unhappy and disintegrating marriages, were characterised by ignorance or indifference to their spouse’s emotional needs and they unwittingly and regularly indulged in love busters.

They were frustrated, hurt and feeling helpless. It was as if their love bank was in deep deficit and their marriage was bankrupt.

When he taught couples how to identify their spouse’s most important emotional needs and coached them in how to meet those needs and avoid the love busters, the marriage recovered. Moreover, couples were able to sustain their relationship with their new insights and strategies.

Meeting our spouse’s needs

Just like our finances, a strong relationship needs a healthy balance in the love bank. When we understand the unique love profile of builders and busters in our relationship, we can choose to relate in a way that naturally builds, rather than bankrupts, the love bank balance.

It’s a simple plan: aim to meet each other’s most important emotional needs and avoid the behaviours that do direct harm. The more consistent and generous we are in meeting each other’s needs, the more credits we put in the love bank and the stronger our attachment becomes.

It makes sense therefore, for couples to be alert to signs of an unmet need in our spouse, and whenever possible seek to meet it. Combined with love buster avoidance, this is a sure way to rebuild a depleted love bank.

But don’t slack off when the credit level is healthy. This is an ideal time to invest in our love bank and build the balance with ease. The credit accumulated during these ‘good times’ will be there to carry us through ‘bad times’ when one, or both of us, is unable to meet the other’s needs and the balance declines.

St Mary of the Cross MacKillop has inspired our ministry for years. Now she also inspires our marriage: to paraphrase … “Never see a need in your spouse without trying to do something about it”!