“Marriage Isn’t for You.” Really?

by Dr. Kristy Money Straubhaar

Marriage advice is everywhere.  Well meaning parents, friends, and blogs all seem to have a simple yet profound solution on how to get ‘er done.   I’ve noticed this advice usually falls into one of two camps:  The key to a successful relationship is  A) Altruism (complete selflessness), or B) Self-fulfillment.    The recent blog “Marriage Isn’t for You” is a good example of the altruism argument: stop trying to make yourself happy and only focus on making your partner happy.   But then, doesn’t that make you happy?  And if it doesn’t, maybe you’re not trying hard enough?  Or still being too selfish?   So try harder!  Sacrifice more!  Until you lose yourself…but how does one then find that self again?   Many have spun in circles thinking about selfishness and selflessness as the only possible motives for why we do good to others:  “Well, if I am doing something for someone else, that’s altruistic. Yea!!   And yet, as I’m doing it, I feel better, so aren’t I at the root just being selfish? How can I ever truly be selfless?  Does true selflessness exist?  Are we all self-serving hedonists at the core?  Ack!”

I think a lot of said head-spinning comes from the nature of these two states:  altruism and hedonism.   We tend to think about them as mutually exclusive opposites, and then we pit them against each other to see which is more important.  We think that to understand, we need to isolate one or the other and do it perfectly! Or die trying — go big or go home, right?  One wins, the other loses.   Our natural desire for order, control, and predictability makes that approach sound like a good idea.  The problem is, it doesn’t work in the long run. It’s a false dichotomy.  A competitive approach for reconciling opposites often leads to heated debate, and over many years of marriage…it leaves us wanting.

Say you just got married, and you had been advised by your mom that marriage isn’t about you, it’s about your spouse, and you feel altruism is a worthy goal so you spend your lifetime subsuming your own ideas/wishes/desires/dreams and instead go with whatever your spouse wants.  Sure, that may work for a year or so…but in the long run?  Can we say, burnout?  To say nothing of a profound loss of identity, possible resentment, and perhaps even the spouse wondering, what happened to the strong, opinionated, defined person I married?

Say your dad told you before you got married you need to look out for #1 (yourself) above all, and in doing so you’ll be a better partner because you’re strong and fulfilled, and your spouse will never want to stray because you’re self-confident and self-assured.   Nice principle, but in practice it’s easy to see how the partner might want a bit more give-and-take over the years —  not to mention how deferring to your every opinion/preference will get super-old.

So, what’s the magic answer?  Which is it, selflessness or self-interest?  Cue ageless debate and headspinning.   Here’s what I learned in my Ph.D. program on the two seemingly opposed forces of self vs. other interest in relationships:

You can’t set one against the other, so forget the competition between the two.  Stop trying to figure out what comes first, whether giving leads to happiness or happiness leads to giving.  Altruism and hedonism have always existed and they shouldn’t be considered separate–rather, they are always in relation to one another.   Each side has an incomplete part of the truth, and need each other side (see: yin-yang).    Likewise, people talk about men and women as opposites:  but from an eternal coexistence standpoint, the more powerful qualities lie in their connections, inter-relatedness, and similarities, rather than their differences.  Masculine and feminine traits exist in everyone!  Why then do we focus so much only on the differences?  A need for order and simplicity, I suppose.

Altruism isn’t sustainable long-term.  You can’t draw from an empty glass. Neither is unbridled narcissism.  So, there’s got to be a way for the two to interact.    When both ideas are considered together, each idea (selflessness and self-interest) becomes complete.   It’s not an either/or, but a both/and situation.

Embracing opposition is essential to the human condition.  It provides depth and richness.   We need to feel the pressure of ongoing and simultaneous pushing/pulling.   It’s comfortable to quickly eliminate choices and never return to them, espcially if the advice sounds simple and nice and something you you’ve been taught you “should” do (i.e. your purpose in life is to give everything to your spouse, not think about your needs, only theirs…so much potential for abuse there).

Embrace the conflicts of opinion and interest!  You can learn about each other, watch the interplay of personality (in a both/and scenario), incorporate what you learned from the other.  Paradoxically, each self retains individual qualities, yet that synergy makes something new.   Check competition in favor of cooperation.

OK, what does that look like in real life, in therapy?  Good question:  Abandon agenda and outcomes in therapy.   Understand you’re doing something extremely difficult (marriage!), delay immediate gratification, be capable of dealing in uncertainties about how your future will look without all the answers.   Give up attempts for rules and control.   One of my clinical supervisors once asked me what I thought the most intolerable emotion was. Anger?  Sadness?  …Helplessness.  Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid feeling out of control, not having the answers on-hand.  Not being able to fix things right away.

Self-interest pulls for the familiar, the known, the controllable. Altruism pulls for adjustment to the other only.  Understand there are no quick solutions, and seek new learning, even from the opposite arguments.  Each partner must accept appropriate responsibility for their stuff (it won’t work if one partner always deflects blame, or the other always accepts said blame).  Rather than defensiveness,  both partners need to extremely vulnerable.  Neither  victim nor martyr, both come to the table early and empty-handed.    Both partners go first:  how’s that for a mind-bending paradox?

It’s scary, doing this.  It’s super vulnerable.  And it won’t work if one of you falls into martyr role.  The details of how this would work require a whole lot of trial and error, and are unique to each partnership.    With competing demands, is easy to fall into either dominance or submissiveness.   Then an argument about abstract principles (“Why are you so selfish all the time?!”  “Why do you always spend money on XXXX?”).  What’s most important is the feelings and experiences  (“I’m feeling trampled on here,”  “This morning I didn’t want to get out of bed because I’m really dreading your mom’s visit”).

Criticism, content, and sarcasm often come from ego defense.   Submission, conflict avoidance, and stonewalling tend to come from ego abandonment.   Neither will work in the long run in an partnership.   Mutual vulnerability is so much harder to do.  I wish I could say I’ve mastered this.  But I haven’t.

A partnership needs altruism AND it needs self-preservation/self-interest.  Without the latter, neglect and abuse can run rampant.  We’re talking real and intense lived experiences here: fights over  sex, money, in-laws, work.  It’s not a matter of if these fights will occur, but when.  There’s no simple solution, no spouse can have complete control or take the assumed position of decider or martyr.  Engage with your spouse.   There will be benefits and losses.   One side or the other will be infringed upon at some point, no doubt, but don’t stop communicating, being vulnerable, being yourself.

Marriage isn’t all for you, it isn’t all for your spouse.  It’s a partnership committed to each other, themselves , and the relationship.   And from a stance that once seemed mutually exclusive, beautiful new ideas emerge.

*A million thanks to Dr. Robert Gleave and countless hours of discussion he spent with us  in practicum.



38 thoughts on ““Marriage Isn’t for You.” Really?

  1. Krystal Pierce says:

    I enjoyed reading this! Much of what you said here echoed my own thoughts after reading the “Marriage Isn’t For You” blog post, even after seven friends shared it with the comment that it was “awesome!!!!”. I completely agree that marriage is a partnership full of complex situations reflecting both give-and-take and push-and-pull. Pure and never-ending altruism always sounds beautiful, but in real life is practically impossible, which can result in feeling inferior. I believe that establishing a healthy balance between selflessness and self-interest can lead to happiness in marriage, or any partnership!

  2. Lee says:

    I really enjoyed your article. The article you probably only in part wrote this response to, being that you felt this was such an important topic and it shows in your writing, is a real tear jerker, But this article you wrote is really grounded. I’m glad this concept of real equality in a relationship is surfacing with this kind of attention, because it’s been on my mind. How we over compensate for the un-equality some may have experienced but not due to our own hand, an unfair balance of things possibly could occur. To fix an unbalance & truly have a real loving relationship you have to really embrace the idea of real equality. Not just a, they get this and I get that kind of mentality, or all or nothing. That sometimes things may need to be revisited, discussed, challenged explored, and hopefully the outcome is “better”. I love how conclusive your article is, beautiful article. Thank you so much.

  3. Not A Propeller Head Dude says:

    I came over here because of your claim (and subsequent responses to it) that your credentials meant that you have more right to an opinion, actually, and I fully agree with the others who have torn you apart for this attitude. I hope you go back and find your degrees as worthless as we do.

    • Joev says:

      Wow, most helpful comment ever! /sarcasm

    • Sar says:

      So… hours upon hours of reading studies on these issues, thinking about them, and writing about them… for years… doesn’t give someone an edge over someone who hasn’t put forth an equal effort to understand these issues? I don’t follow the logic.

  4. AllyGriggles says:

    Thank you for writing this! That original blog post left a bad taste in my mouth. It seems to me that a lot of the blog posts I’m seeing from young marrieds are Christians who do promote this idea of “serving” each other. I have a problem with that word in general, but that blog post certainly took it too far. I wonder why so many people my age are turning to the altruism only stuff in marriage that you were talking about. It makes me wonder which of their “hedonistic” (read: honest) feelings they’re trying to suppress.

    I also started wondering how the OP’s advice translates in the bedroom. Neither partner is going to feel very happy if they aren’t fully able to communicate their needs. If they’re spending all of their time and attention trying to please their partner, they’re going to be left unsatisfied, which certainly doesn’t make for a happy marriage.

  5. Thank you for this. The original blog post was sweet but not very realistic. I knew something didn’t quite sit right with me while I was reading it yesterday and you explained it perfectly.

  6. Sarah says:

    Thank you for posting this. I posted on the original blog post with something similar to your main idea. Often in marriages, one spouse will dedicate themselves to the other spouse without the other spouse doing the same thing. That is not a good marriage.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this. Many of your thoughts are very similar to mine. It seems to encourage all the things I’ve learned NOT to do in the last few years on my journey of overcoming codependency and finding happiness within myself (man or not). I may have to write my own reply to this post as well, so thanks for the inspiration! 😉

  8. Pam says:

    Thank you so much for your insight. If I may take a small liberty and possibly interpret what the original author meant (keeping in mind that I do not know him and I have never actually discussed the post with him). I believe that he was looking at the ideal. In other words if BOTH spouses always put the other first then both spouses’ needs are being met. Also essential within this equation is communication. By communicating your needs to your partner, you ensure that your needs are met (again in the ideal situation). I believe that if this ideal is achieved, then you put an amazing amount of trust in your partner by allowing him/her to meet your needs and put you first; and likewise, he/she puts the same trust in you. When I read the original blog post, I didn’t think that he was saying that both partners should be looking out for the needs of the one. It sounded to me like he meant that they should be looking out for each others needs. Admittedly this doesn’t happen in many marriage relationships, but I think that is why he was saying that it is how it should be. I don’t believe that either you or him are right or wrong, because as you stated in your article by choosing either one we can create a false dichotomy. I believe that both of you provide valuable insights on the power of a great relationship. Thank you again. You got my gears spinning even more.

    • Exactly, Pam! Thank you for posting.

    • Thank you for that explanation, Pam. I think you do an excellent job of clarifying the message of the original blog post, which I had strong misgivings about.

      There is still one area of the message that I don’t get. Say that we have that ideal situation where two people meet each other’s needs perfectly. How would their needs be met when they are not together – before they get married, while spending time apart during marriage, and after their marriage ends (for whatever reason)? It seems to me that this ideal marriage would render them unable to function without their spouses.

      • Pam says:

        Hi Hrvoje,
        That’s a great question. I think that if these two people are communicating their needs to each other, then they are not forgetting about their own needs necessarily; they are simply choosing to not focus on them. Therefore, when the partners are apart they should still be able to understand and fulfill their own needs.
        If the marriage were to end, I think we would need to look at why it ended. If one partner died then, yes I think there would be a period of readjustment, where the one would have to possible relearn to fulfill his/her own needs on a constant basis. While one could argue that the surviving partner would not have to do this in the first place if the partners had fulfilled their own needs while they were both alive, I believe that we need to look at a cost benefit scenario. If this way of working together is the ideal and truly brings great happiness, does the benefit of the ideal relationship outweigh the cost of having to deal with the re-learning process? I guess that this would be a question that each partnership and each partner would need to ask for themselves.
        If the marriage were to end through divorce, then we really must ask ourselves what happened. If these two people are living the ideal, why did they get divorced? If their greatest and sincerest goal in life is to make each other happy, would they really get a divorce. I don’t know. Maybe I am being naive, but I believe that in this situation a divorce would not happen. So therefore, the partners would never be forced to take care of their own needs on a permanent basis.
        I’ve written a lot. I would love to know what you think Hrvoje, and also what others think.

      • Thank you for a comprehensive answer, Pam. 🙂

        While I do think that divorce is a real possibility, I don’t think we need to go there. Death results in the same scenario without the controversy.

        The angle that I’m taking is that meeting one’s needs requires a skill set that is honed with practice. Some needs are easily met, but others are not so straightforward. If one is in the habit of relying on someone else to meet their needs, their own skills will remain underdeveloped. Of course, this problem doesn’t occur if meeting one’s needs is not all that challenging, or if the practice of meeting someone else’s needs can be readily applied to one’s own. I just don’t think that either line of reasoning is realistic.

        Out of interest, since you seem willing to explore the subject and offer thoughtful answers, I’d like to understand how Seth’s advice applies in the more difficult scenarios. For example, I find that changing my mindset about some of my needs (by practising mindfulness) is effective at making them disappear. Then there are needs – such as for leading a meaningful, purposeful and fulfilling existence – that can take years of soul-searching to unravel. I cannot even begin to imagine how my wife would be able to meet needs like these for me. Are you aware of cases where people have been able to do this for each other, or am I taking the advice too far?

    • brittany says:

      Perfect explanation. Obviously when people are stating these things they are talking about the idea. Obviously not everyone falls into that (in fact, almost no one does), but that is what we are striving for–the ideal. It is about the struggle/journey to get to that idea–putting into practice these values, ideas, etc.

  9. Joseph H says:

    Hey Im a psychologist on internship. I really like this article but you all HAVE to put your name on this. Please, we need to know who writes these things. That being said, this was an article that needed to be written

  10. Wayne Godfrey says:

    Wonderfully insightful post, Dr. Kristy and I agree. You and I have both reached a similar waypoint in our own ascents to the crest of the mountain. Your Dr, Gleave seems to be a truly gifted man from your restatement of his wisdom. And you as well for being such fertile soil as well as your honorably attributing his ideas to him.

    Success in the balancing act between self care and care of the beloved is, in my experience, one of the better kept secrets to an abundant life.
    There’s nothing quite like the deeply connected, safe feelings that intimacy gained from shared vulnerability can attain. And that means not speaking solely from absolute “selfulness” or from worship of the other, just as you say. Honoring the relationship itself also implies a third rail that may not fit either of you tactically in the moment, but in tandem together contributes to the team as a shared collaboration. Not only contributes to the bond, but forges it anew each time. A reaffirmation that continues to strengthen.

    As my mentor once taught me, daring to place self in a truly vulnerable, trusting position looms as a death defying act. It requires ample faith and courage for an individual to muster. And, at least initially, an ability to gamble trust on perception and faith alone. But for those willing to risk that high wire trapeeze act despite repeated traumatic falls, the rewards can be a highly interconnected, abundant life and skills that ultimately lead to a confidence in all life endeavors, regardless of outcome. Those I have known who have dared live outside their comfort zone ultimately expand it to become ever more inclusive of the abundance of their world. And appreciative as well.

    And that’s my story and I’m stickin to it.

    Thanks for responding to my post on AOL. I admire the work you have dedicated yourself to and wish you continued success in your service to others. They are lucky recipients, indeed.

    Wayne Godfrey
    Albuquerque, NM

  11. Alyssa says:

    Thanks for sharing Joseph and writing Kristy. Well said. It’s much more complicated than Seth touched on.

  12. […] “Marriage isn’t for Me.” Really? (centerforwomenspsychology.wordpress.com) […]

  13. I liked your response to the other article. Life in itself is a balance. Each individual and each couple needs to find theirs. We find our balance by constantly searching for new information. Like you said, always keep communication going between partners. Well written.

  14. samgibbon says:

    This was very refreshing to read! So many people have reposted the “marriage isn’t for you” blog, and I could not understand how everyone seemed to feel it was so “heartwarming” and “amazing”. Your post is a much less simplistic and more well-rounded view on what is really needed to make a relationship work.

  15. Daniel says:

    Brilliant! Thank you for such a well thoughtout and meaningful post.

    • Very insightful! I am not a professional, so my perspective is one who honestly strives to create and sustain emotionally, spiritually and physically healthy relationships without the benefit of scholarly training. Disclaimer posted. I did not find the original piece, “Marriage Is Not For You” offensive. Instead I asked myself,”how often do I consider my husband’s desires before my own? How good am I at looking at his point of view first? I think there is quote by Stephen Covey that is frequently referenced. Loosely stated, “seek to understand before seeking to be understood.” I also asked myself, “are my desires heard and respected?” My husband and I read the article together, just as I will ask him to read this one with me. We talked about it a bit and I can tell that we are seek to be more thoughtful and considerate in our communication and actions. There is more peace and less contention in our home.

      Dr Kristy I see your article as the “rest of the story”, or maybe that is to conclusive, because, relationships and individuals stretch, grow and evolve. Your article is very well written and rounds out both perspectives. Thank you very much for posting this. Pam I really enjoyed your insights also. I look forward to other interesting conversations.

  16. […] while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’” Some people have responded (see one example here) by arguing that the notion of love never being about the person showing it is based in a […]

  17. Rich says:

    I am a little confused with how altruism is discussed here. It seems like a rather large assumption to assert that altruism is unsustainable because it will somehow inevitably lead to burn out or losing one’s self, etc. It seems to me that this would only be true if you assume that having your behavior motivated by your concern for your spouse (altruism) would lead you to pander to their every whim and make sure you never have an opinion that differs from theirs (as if all altruists are in the martyr role automatically and have no capacity for healthy boundaries).

    That seems to be a better description of enmeshed relationships than a definition of altruism.

    In what way would that be of service to your spouse or your friend or your child or anyone you know? History (to say nothing of the current generation of teens) has shown that giving someone everything they want is never really a gift.

    It seems to me that if you really love someone (and you have any wisdom) you’re still going to tell them ‘no’ sometimes or call them out and challenge their thinking. You would expect them to respect you. Sometimes you might even ask something of them that may be extremely hard or uncomfortable in order to help them grow or to keep your relationship healthy and vibrant. You are also going to take care of yourself in every way you can (and ask them to support you in this) because being at your very imperfect best while helping them be at their very imperfect best is the best gift you could ever give them.

    The short version of what I’m saying is that mindless altruism for it’s own sake or as an appeal to principle is not sustainable and technically it probably isn’t really altruism. (ie. “I should do service because altruism is a thing.”) However, a more robust altruism (ie. “I’m living my life in such a way that I am in the best position possible to have something to offer you because I love you.”) is completely sustainable and leads to all the other awesome stuff you talk about here.

  18. BiologyBrain says:

    When I read Seth’s post, I didn’t get the either-or or competitive aspect. Instead what I got is that by loving someone with your whole heart, mind, and body is the best way to have a happy marriage. Human nature is such that we are constantly seeking to satisfy ourselves. Therefore we need very little thought into pleasing ourselves, but a lot of thought and effort to please our spouse. In loving our spouse, we seek to do what is best for them, not simply what gives them instant gratification. So, even (especially), when we truly love our spouse fully, we aren’t simply pandering to their every whim (as Pam said). Instead we choose the option that will best outcome for our spouse even if it doesn’t make them instantly happy.

    Today most people want instant gratification without any sacrifice, work, difficulty, etc. However, instant gratification isn’t usually what is best for us. For example, if my daughter wanted candy all the time instead of healthy food, out of love I would ensure she ate healthy foods first and then received a treat (candy) afterwards. While she may get upset with me for not giving her what she wanted, eventually, my loving care of her needs will lead to her having a happier, healthier life. My love for her and insistence that she eat healthy did not affect my happiness one way or the other.

    Love for another has no reason to interfere with healthy love of self. Parents often love and care for their children more than they think about loving or caring for themselves. Much of the time, the degree of love and care is not fully reciprocated by the child, because human nature (self love) has to be overcome through means many children lack. Mature love (of self and others) weighs the proposed outcome with what is going to be most beneficial in the long run. If mature love is returned, then there is no loss of self, because each spouse is seeking the best for the other. Again, the instant result may seem less than beneficial, but if the decision was made based on true love then eventually it’ll prove to be the best option.

    Obviously, this is the ideal and, sadly, few of us ever measure up to this ideal. Yet, we should all practice and strive to love our spouse as we love ourselves.

  19. Cw says:

    I think your article is interesting. I think the original article is great in an ideal world. I believe the original author is right, in an ideal world, if we both put each other first, both of our needs will be met. I do understand how that can be an issue when selflessness is one sided. I think if you are putting your spouse’s needs first, you will know what is important to them and they will be happy. Likewise, if they are putting you first, they will ask what is important to you, so you are not loosing all your sense of what’s important to you.

    My thought is that we are by nature self centered, so if we put major thought into serving others, the natural side of us will still be inclined to our own selfish desires, so we will still be personally satisfied. With an increased awareness of the needs of those around us, we can also be a great partner and server in life that is more aware of the needs of those around us.

    Hopefully that makes sense. I would love to hear the author of this article’s thoughts on my comments.

  20. Hi CW! Thank you for posting–let me see, I think I might slightly disagree that we are by nature self-centered. I know there’s no way to prove it, but philosophically I believe human nature already exists with the duality built-in, of both selfish and selflessness. Culturally we may be taught to be more selfish (i.e. in terms of consumerism and materialism run rampant thanks to advertising), but naturally I’d say we’re equally both. I like your idea very much. I think from a feminist perspective, the problem is that women are already taught and reinforced to do exactly what you mentioned, so there needs to be some balance there for women to preserve the self in relationships without always focusing on anticipating their spouse’s needs. Great thoughts, keep them up! And thank you all for your thoughtful consideration on the issue at hand!

  21. This makes so much sense. I can’t say I was totally a fan of the original article that this is a rebuttal for; though it had a few good points, it doesn’t work in practice when all things become one sided. I’m leaving a 14 year relationship due to the narcissistic attitude that became a cancer in my relationship, and I find myself oddly thankful that he never did ask me for marriage, because I wouldn’t have been able to say yes. I wouldn’t have been able to lie to myself to that particular extent, though I did for a little while to try and make it past the “rough spots” that all relationships experience. Turns out it was a mountain, not a mole hill and I completely missed the forest for the trees. I am terrified of rebuilding my life, but I find the option of staying even more disturbing than making myself get out there and love Me for Me. Thank you for the article, it was very insightful, and quite helpful in my current situation. You now have a new fan. I look forward to reading many more of your blogs. Have a lovely day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s