Legitimate Self-Concern versus Unconditional Love in Marriage

Originally published 5th May 2013
See details of the free ebook version of this post available here

This is an issue that I have greatly struggled with – it is possibly the single biggest issue that I have struggled to understand regarding marriage over the years (or it may be joint first,  tied with the question of  “how do I know my husband will remain excellent?” ). No-one will ever persuade me that it is wrong to be aware of my own needs in marriage – this blog is built entirely on that premise that it is good and right for me to consider my own needs. This is because, struggling with the question for so long, but not knowing the answer, I have erred “safely” on the side of my own self-concern.

Now I feel as if I have a valid and powerful answer to the issue. I wonder what changes I would make if I went back and reassessed my existing posts from this new understanding?

Believe it or not, in many of my relationships and friendships I can actually be quite selfless. However, marriage has always been the big exception to this. In my mind I have always looked upon marriage as a time of meeting my own needs, whenever I feel a yearning for intimacy, or deep heartfelt conversations, or warm, strong hugs, I always think “When I get married!”, looking forward to this time as the time when I can finally get a very, very long list of needs met.

I have always struggled with that tension between being selfless in marriage, and getting my own needs met. I cannot even begin to pretend that I will be getting married and tying myself to someone else out of a purely selfless desire to serve this same someone else for the rest of my life. Obviously I want and need to get something out of it too!

On the other hand, common sense dictates that if we, my husband and I, are both grabbing as much from the marriage as we possibly can, as fast as we can, without putting anything back, then the tank, or bank of our marriage will soon run dry.

Because I am generally considerate and caring in my friendships and yet have always thought of marriage as a place in which to get my own needs fulfilled, a future husband might notice a shocking change in me once we get married. Someone who used to be so accommodating and kind is suddenly making lots of insistent demands! This will not be because I was pretending in any way before marriage, or because I was not genuinely as kind as I seemed. I was, and I am. It is simply because this is my view of marriage – my time – finally!

I have always been a little fearful about the idea of unconditional love.

What if I give everything, and my husband gives nothing back – in that case I will have lost out, and I will find myself empty-handed in exchange for all my effort!
While it may be unrealistic to suggest that one spouse will give absolutely nothing, (while the other gives everything), in many marriages problems seem to occur when one party feels as if they are unfairly giving more than the other to the marriage. Some people will give a certain amount, and then when their spouse fails to reciprocate adequately, then they will scale back their own contribution to the marriage, or even stop it altogether. In this way the marriage can enter a “tit for tat” stage, first you do something, then I will do something, then you do something, then I will do something…. and if one of us fails at any time to make our contribution, then the thing grinds to a halt.

Here is a way that has occurred to me to square this circle. Imagine if, rather than taking as much as we can from the marriage, both of us will instead be giving as much as we can, as fast as we can – imagine the atmosphere in that kind of marriage!
Yes, I have valid and legitimate needs, and yes, it is appropriate for me to expect that those needs will be met in marriage. However, my husband will obviously also have his own needs, and might also equally have dreamt of marriage as a time when his own needs will  finally get met!
How about this – if I make up my mind to concentrate on fulfilling my husband’s needs, not forgetting my own requirements, but rather looking up to God, rather than my hubby, to meet them? This means that I don’t need to wait for hubby to reciprocate but I can rather just continue pouring into my marriage as much love, beauty, tenderness and kindness as I can. This means that when I am feeling frustrated that what I need is not happening, I do not need to “take it out” on my husband, or hold back from fulfilling his own needs, until he finally “gets it” and reciprocates adequately. What I can do is go to God, and complain to Him, pour out my heart etc – and trust that He will act. Why after all, why would I complain to a mere man, when I can complain to a whole God?!

This means that I can take the same selflessness demonstrated in our friendship state right into our marriage, without having to undergo any change which the eventual Monsieur Le Huggie-Wuggie might find shocking.

This also means that for me as I am now, single, when interacting with various guys who could each potentially be my husband, I do not have to alter my behaviour based on whether someone could eventually be my husband or not. In a way I don’t have to worry about this at all. All I have to do is concentrate on being a genuine friend, and walk in obedience with God, trusting Him that He God will meet my needs.

That is, when as a single person, I find myself being overtaken by thoughts of hugs and holding hands, I do not have to look around to assess which of my friends could fully meet these needs. Rather I can turn these yearnings over to God, and make sure that they are not in any way sitting in my mind when I am interacting with my friends
From this, part of ensuring that I will get my legitimate needs met is to obey God to make sure I marry the right guy in the first place.

Also imagine if both parties in a marriage are doing this, each giving all they can in love and friendship to one another, not holding back or allowing their expressions of love and considerate care to become restricted to a tit-for-tat routine, not making angry demands of one another, but each being individually committed to continue pouring out love, no matter what. This is what unconditional love means.

This is the attitude that I now wish to cultivate towards my husband: It is not your responsibility to meet my needs, rather it is God’s responsibility. It is my responsibility to be used by God to meet your needs!

Now that this has occurred to me I am so excited at the prospect of being able to work to create a marriage like this! I am so eager for him to show up now, so that I could enthusiastically pour out all I possibly can of love, grace, kindness and generosity straight onto his head!

I dream of a marriage where love and joy and smiles and kindness are liberally poured out – not stingily measured out with scientific precision, depending on previous actions.  It is not about “give and take”, rather it is about “give and give”  or rather yet “give and give – and pray”.  Now I can be confident about my chances of getting such a marriage – because I myself am going to be doing everything I can, by the empowerment of God, to make this happen!  Obviously it will work best for both of us where we are both cultivating this attitude.
Some people are really not all that bothered about marriage.  They would be more than happy to simply get a spouse who ticks all the right social boxes, and “get on with it”.  However as a person I am strongly affected by the attitude of people around me.  If I am surrounded by negative people then I feel miserable.  This is a large reason why I always struggled with the work environments at different jobs.  For me I literally need to be enveloped by love and kindness from the people around me. Perhaps this is why marriage for me is such a big deal and why I know that personally speaking, I simply cannot afford to get it wrong.
The meaning of marital needs
Whenever (Christian) people start talking about “meeting a husband’s needs in marriage”, this usually makes me cringe, because almost invariably, they will be referring to his sexual needs. That is included in these consideration, but it goes far beyond that.  Rather when I am talking here about needs, I am talking about all the needs that either spouse might have, as far as it is possible to meet them.  Pray as I might, God has not seen fit to grant me 25 hours in the day (although He has enabled me to be more efficient with the time He has given me). Through time or other constraints,  I may not be able to deal with everything, but I can certainly do what I can.  Here I am talking about giving myself 100% to doing what I can do, what is within my grasp.
Loving him unconditionally does not mean that I cannot pray for my husband about the ways he might be falling short, or lovingly discuss these areas with him as necessary. Trust me, I will do both of these things.  (For all I know, the man I will eventually marry, hoping I do eventually get married, is already praying desperately for my own inadequacies!)  Rather it is about not trying to force him to act in any certain way, even if these are things that he actually does need to do, even if the failure to do them represents an unacceptable failing in his life.  It is about letting the impetus for positive change in his life and his actions come from the spirit of God, rather than my own nagging.
I know that even within marriage, there can be a  constant fear of being rejected by your spouse.  What if I give my one hundred percent, or even my one thousand percent, only for him to throw it back into my face?  I hope that this is not an expression of my unmarried naïveté, but I am thinking that if I genuinely do it for him, not tying his acceptance to my own self-esteem, not tying his behaviour to my self-esteem at all, then that would make this situation easier to bear.  That said, I think I would actually be crushed if someone threw all my efforts back at me.  I would have to handle this situation with much prayer so that God Himself would act to rescue my self-esteem.
Re-igniting a marriage from a place of staleness/stagnation
I always think that a big part of the difficulty in considering a stagnant marriage is the mutual vulnerability that the spouses must take on to get back to a place of marital vibrancy. What if I do everything to express love to him, and I go out of my way to expend lots of time, effort and money only for him to just laugh at me, or throw it back at me?
What if you concentrated on doing your own part, continuing to pour out love no matter what – and you left the rest to God?  What if you cried out and pestered God with the frustration that you would rather direct at your spouse, until God gets fed up and finally moves the hard heart of your spouse?
Believe it or not, pestering God, or “twisting His arm”, as some Christians like to put it, is a totally Biblical and legitimate way of thinking about prayer. This is the pragmatic advice that Jesus Himself gives us in Luke 18 verses 1-8, that we should pester God like a desperate widow pestered a reluctant judge for justice against her enemies – until the judge finally got fed up and acted in her favour.
I’m thinking that if your spouse married you in the first place, that indicates that they are not totally immune to you (although I appreciate that the dynamics of marriage can change this greatly).  However, even if they are now in a place where they are immune to your biggest efforts, then try as hard as they might, they cannot remain immune to God!
So what, Tosin, you mean you are going to use prayer as a means of manipulating and controlling your spouse?  Joke response – with my eyes and  mouth wide open in shock that anyone would even bother to ask “Of course! That is what prayer is there for! In fact, I have already started…”
More serious response – this is not actually manipulation, because God is the One who is acting. Try as I might, I will never actually be able to control God, or “twist His arm”.  This is after all God we are talking about.  He’s kinda big!  And have you seen how powerful that arm is?!  It created the whole universe!  He will only do things that are in accordance with His will, and that will promote His holy purposes.  So it is not that I am using God to get my husband to act as I wish.  Rather, in the act of prayer, I am making myself available to God so that He God will use my prayers to achieve the purposes that He has.  For some reason, God often ties His action to our prayers.  So I am the one who is being used. Even the act of prayer is an expression of love for my spouse, and obviously also myself.
Love is only going as far as the other person needs, or requests. Now I am really excited about the prospect of showering my husband with unconditional love. It might just be easy to try to bombard him with various expressions of love. However, it occurred to me that this might not be a successful strategy. It may be that for whatever reason, he is not in a place where he can accept these self-less gifts, or he might just not want them in the format which I might most readily think of. I think that love is being attuned to the other person’s requirements and needs. I have personally been in situations where people have seemed determined to bombard me with “niceness” and sincerely, I cannot tell you how eye-rollingly tedious it can be.
It seemed as if it was more about their having a chance to express their niceness, than about what might actually have been relevant to my own requirements. As a person, I genuinely have no need for people to go out of their way to be “nice” to me. All that I require is for people to be sincerely friendly and to treat me as a human being with full human capabilities, discretion and judgement. (Many times, despite the “niceness”, this was consistently missing). However, as I write this, it occurs to me that I have also done exactly the same thing to other people, over-emphasising the “nice” thing. So I guess you have to listen carefully and observantly to the other person, listen to what they say, as well as what they don’t say. It is not about emphasising the chance to express my own niceness, rather it is about carefully and diplomatically presenting what they might need, or want, in the way that is most accessible to them.
Because love is about genuinely offering a service to others it is not about forcing them to accept the gifts. Rather we have to accept that everyone has the right to reject our gifts, no matter how lovingly offered, even if we know that the person in question desperately needs this gift. This is how it is with salvation through Christ. I know that everyone on earth desperately needs this gift. I know that God painfully and expensively made this sacrifice for all of us. And yet I accept that everyone has the human right to choose to reject this gift, even though it might mean that they end up in hell forever (sorry to put it so bluntly!) A more gentle example: Perhaps you have spent the whole day preparing the most delicious meal on earth, deliberately choosing what you know your spouse loves to eat. And in walks in said spouse, looking absolutely famished.
And yet, for some mysterious, inexplicable reason, they absolutely refuse to eat the meal over which you have lovingly slaved. I think that you would have a right to be upset. However what I am saying is that, instead of trying to force them to eat, or insisting that they should eat, we can take these feelings of being upset to God, and go to complain to Him. In the meantime we can endeavour to continue to love our spouse, putting such painful episodes behind us, doing our best to forget them. It may be that the other person is psychologically not in a place where they can accept your gifts. Love is not about forcing them to that right place, but about being patient with them and where they are at any particular time. (And perhaps using prayer as a time to express our impatience and manage it with God’s help and guidance).
Not going on about it!
This is another interesting part of this issue. Sometimes, when someone does something for another person, they just keep going on and on about it, so that the other person does not have a chance to forget. I don’t believe that this is the genuine spirit of giving. I believe that when you give something to someone, whether it is a tangible thing that you give or whether you do something for someone else, to genuinely be a gift, you have to give it to them and totally release it to them, “with no strings attached” so that you cannot quickly yank it back. I believe that you have to totally let it go, so that you cannot then try to use it to control them or remind them about all that you have done for them. I believe that this will cultivate a healthy atmosphere in marriage. Obviously we want our spouses to appreciate what we have done for them. However I think that if you don’t want to give the gift then don’t give it. It is better not to give the gift than to give it then expect someone to be forever beholden to you.
On the other hand, I believe that while we are to forget the gifts that we give to others, we should remember the gifts that other people give us, remember all the kind words that they have given us over time…
Love also accepts
I think that while we appreciate the rights of our spouse to refuse our gifts, we also have to remember that love is not only about giving our own gifts, but also about accepting the gifts that they also give. I have been in situations where I have invested lots of effort to show care or concern for someone, or a group of people, or to contribute constructively, and no-one acknowledges that effort, or they don’t accept the gift. They just discard it or dismiss it. This can be so painful. I can’t imagine how painful that might be in marriage. I believe that part of love is acknowledging the efforts of people around us, and accepting them, even if they are not precisely aligned with our own needs or requirements. So to go back to the example of the meal above, if my husband spent hours cooking a meal for me, then I hope I could honestly say that I would always eat it, even if he was the worst cook on earth (unless it would actually endanger my life or my health!) And if I did eat it, I would make up my mind to find that meal delicious.
What if you said this to your spouse (please note, I wrote this myself. However, it is so embarrassing that I think I would melt before I said it to anyone! Unfortunately, marriage is often about embracing and pressing through those awkward moments!)
“No matter what you do, I am going to use every ounce of energy that I have to show you love and kindness. I am going to invest all my effort into pouring out love, tenderness and kindness upon your head to fully meet your needs. Even if you ignore me, even if you throw it all back at me, it is not going to make the slightest difference to me.” (In practice, I think that I would probably spice this up with a little humour to make it a little easier to say!)
And then once you have managed to spit that out, then I would go to God for the sake of praying to Him about fulfilling your own needs.

While yes, I think I would melt before saying this to anyone, I think that I would equally melt if someone said this to me, with tenderness and sincerity resonant in his voice and written all over his face. This is so embarrassing but I honestly think that I would burst into tears, cry-baby that I am! (I know that guys cry too – they just hide it more skilfully than we girls do!) And then if he were to go out of his way to actually behave this way…?

Being taken for granted
This is a fear that occurs to me even as I write this: well if I do all this, am I not simply encouraging my spouse to take me for granted? Well this is the way I am thinking about this: it is about doing my own part. In a way, whichever my spouse chooses to receive my behaviour and relate to it should not direct how I treat them. If they are not responding adequately, or they are using this as licence to take me for granted then I will go to God in prayer.
Should we think a little about that old chestnut – the question of who should go first? I think that technically, if there is a stalemate in the marriage and you have to seek external counselling, then it should be the husband who is advised to go first in taking a stance of unconditional love towards his wife.  This is because he is the leader of the marriage, and that is what leaders do – they go first.
However, in an ideal scenario, both the husband and the wife should “go first” because each party’s behaviour is not at all dependent on the behaviour of the other spouse. Because of this, even though the wife is not the head of the marriage, if her husband is not in a good place to show leadership in this type of unconditional love, then it may well be that she goes first, and she continues to take the lead until God eventually turns the hard heart of her husband and brings him to a place where he can finally show leadership in this area.
Finally then, a humorous way of thinking about this: I think that if your spouse gives nothing to your marriage but you give your one hundred percent then at least you will have a 50% marriage. However if you withdraw your own effort because of your spouse’s inadequacy, then suddenly you will be left with a zero percent marriage, (although admittedly that might cause your spouse to sit up and start taking notice…)

Bible Verses:
1 Corinthians 13v4:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;

1 Corinthians 13v5-6:
does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth…;

1 Corinthians 13v7-8:
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

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