Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dueling Selfishness

This is another re-post, from four-and-a-half years ago. But it seems decently apropos as we head into Lent. . .


I've been blogging here for [almost five years now, off and on], and I've told you several great stories from Jen's and my lives. In the course of [30+] years of marriage together, we've really come a long way, and I've enjoyed sharing with you all some of what we've learned over the years.

But we're not this wonderfully saintly couple living in a faint glow of unearthly light. We can be as petty and selfish as anybody else; probably the biggest thing we've learned over the years is how to repent and apologize sooner than we used to.

(I'm going to wander off on a parenthetical tangent for a moment here. I used to work for a company that forbade us to utter the word 'problem'; there were no 'problems', went the cliche, only 'opportunities', or at worst, 'challenges'. So our inside joke was, "Houston, we've got an opportunity. . .")

From the beginning years of our marriage, our most persistent, uh, 'challenge' has been what I call 'Dueling Selfishness', or, as Jen puts it, 'My Needs; No, My Needs'. For various reasons, I think we both grew up being fairly accustomed to getting our own way. Which meant that we were ripe for some real choice ego-clashes when we were married: "Of course, you can easily see that I need thus-and-such, so you should just step aside and let me have my way." "But, it's even more obvious that you should defer to my needs, isn't it?" And so it went.

Over time, we got tired of the endless circle of 'My needs; no, my needs', and started learning to deal constructively with the situation. Sometimes, it meant one or the other of us had to defer to the other; sometimes it meant finding an agreeable compromise. But the most fundamental change was to our attitudes.

The biblical epistle to the Romans tells us that we should strive to "Outdo one another in showing honor," and that was a real straightforward challenge to us. We had been outdoing one another in asserting our will, and here the apostle was urging us to outdo one another in looking after each other's good, rather than our own. And what a fundamental transformation that brought. Rather than trying to manipulate Jen so that I got what I wanted, I needed to simply look after her good; and likewise, she needed to look after mine before her own. And the result was that both our needs got met, without all the bickering and anxiety.

Of course, this entails a pretty significant 'leap of faith' - that, if I give up worrying about my own needs being met so as to look after Jen's, my needs will indeed be covered. And likewise for her. I honestly don't remember if one of us 'went first', hoping the other would 'catch on', or if it was something we worked out together, but in the fullness of time, the magic worked.

Someone has said that marriage is not a 50/50 proposition, it's a 100/100 proposition. That is, it's not about me giving half and Jen giving half; it's about both of us giving all we have - my life for hers, her life for mine. And it's not about 'keeping score' of who's putting in more or less than the other. We both just 'go all-in'.

And of course, we've learned this perfectly, and our marriage is a smoothly-running machine, all the time. . .

Well. . . no - not really.

. . .

The thing is, the 100/100 marriage takes a LOT of trust between spouses, and when trust is damaged, it isn't instantly built back up [human beings being what we are]. The hurtful stuff doesn't just dissolve when the apology is made and accepted; it leaves psychic wounds behind that take some time to heal. But we're building some 'good history' with each other, and establishing a firm base of trust which we can stand on, even when some peripheral chunk of trust is damaged. Because we've got many years' worth of experience now that the other is looking out for our good, it's easier to treat specific instances of selfishness as aberrations.

So it's worth me telling you that we aren't this perfect couple with a perfect marriage - I'm as selfish as anyone else, and I can be as petty and pissy as anyone else. But, by God's grace, we've learned how to be married in some good and life-giving ways.

And may God have mercy. . .


  1. The 100/100 is very true. In our case, my husband has always called me the 'Get-along-Girl' because I have a tendency to really not care all that much about a lot of things. Hence, he gets his way 98% of the time.

    Now, if we're talking basic, living, get-on-each-others'-nerves? That's where the problems have arose (arisen?)....

  2. Ya know, one of the most difficult concepts to this whole thing is that initial "I need to trust you to look out for my well being" thing. These days I recommend couples start the process whilst dating 'cause every day has the potential for trust erosion and 100-100 is a pipe dream without a solid basis of trust.

    bijoux, I'm with you there. Queenie gets what Queenie wants though a lot of that is 'cause I'm really just not picky. Mostly .....

  3. Bijoux - (it's 'arisen') ;)

    Your husband is a very lucky man. . . ;)

    Xavier - You're absolutely right. Trust is the key ingredient. Hard to trust when you're worried you might get screwed (uh. . . 'cheated'). . .

    I've often said that the best thing Jen and I had going for us heading into our marriage was the three years of friendship we had, before we ever went on a date. Both of us had a pretty good idea of who the other one was, long before it ever became a question of marriage. . .

  4. a very worthy repost as it contains real wisdom borne of experience....both challenging ones and less challenging

  5. Lime - Thank you, my friend. . .

    One of the early Church Fathers used to refer to marriage as, 'The School of Holiness'; and that resonates with our experience. Marriage has a way of making clear to its participants just how selfish they really are, and the radical difference between where they are and where they need to be. As a friend of mine likes to say, 'you can't stay selfish and stay married'. . .

    Jen also likes to joke that, most people can get holy with only two or three kids, but it took eight to beat it into us. . . ;)

  6. Very interesting reading. My marriage is somewhat the opposite as we both tend to say, "Whatever you want is fine...", which means that we often don't get anything done at all when it should be done. We're TOO deferential.

  7. Suldog - I'm trying to wrap my mind around the idea of 'too deferential'. . . It seems to take me to a vaguely Gordon-Gecko-ish place. . .

    Or, you know, maybe you guys are just weird. . .