Often I have been asked, “Since selfishness is a major cause of marital problems, should my needs ever take preference over my spouse’s? Do I always have to put my companion’s needs first?”
Actually, there is a wide spectrum of choices available to husbands and wives as they attempt to balance their needs and the needs of their spouses. “Fulfilling my needs to the total exclusion of others” is just one end of the spectrum; “fulfilling others’ needs to the total exclusion of my own” is at the other. As a marriage counselor, I see severe spiritual and social problems at both extremes.
Who enjoys being around a person who is concerned only about himself, who must always be right, must do his “thing” continually, and never takes anyone else into consideration? Such a person talks to you but does not listen, insists on “serving” you whether you want it or not, is free with advice but is not willing to give needed help.
At the other extreme are people so concerned about being unselfish that they exhaust themselves trying to please everyone. They continually put their needs and wants on the shelf in the interest of family, church callings, neighbors, and friends. It eventually takes a severe depression or other manifestation of stress before they see that it’s okay to request, even require, that others be sensitive to their needs some of the time. There comes a time when even the strongest must draw strength from others. Some of us find it much easier to extend rather than accept service. Yet, if we always put ourselves last, we rob others of the challenge and joy of giving.
A key question in service to others is, “What does the other person need?” rather than “What do I want to give him?” For instance, although I consider a box of candy a special treat, my wife may see it as a threat to her diet. One woman may appreciate her husband’s help in the kitchen, while another may see it as trespassing on her domain.
How can I know what my spouse really needs? It may be helpful to watch and listen for negative moods or feelings and then ask, “You seem down (or irritated, or anxious). Can we talk about it?” Then try to listen without giving advice or criticism. Our intent is to understand. One way of doing this is to repeat in our own words what we understand our spouse’s feelings or concern to be. If there is any misunderstanding, he or she can clarify.
It is hard not to give advice at such a time, because selfishness suggests that the way I do things is the right way and any reasonable person should recognize that. For example, a husband may be tempted to describe his wife’s church work as an infringement on their family, thinking his is legitimate service. He may choose to see her TV watching as a waste of time, while his is recreation or education. At the end of her hectic day, he may feel she should continue cooking and cleaning, while he thinks he deserves a rest. But selflessness challenges us to admit that others’ priorities are at least as valid as ours, that our reasoning sometimes is just rationalization.
Caution! It is easier to sound concerned than to be concerned. In my own situation, I often have worries of my own, when my wife needs to talk. Or I may be tired. Or I may need someone to listen to me. In any of these circumstances, I have to fight the temptation to shift the focus from my wife’s problems to my own. I also have to fight the temptation to half-listen to her. I may even have to miss a favorite TV show sometimes. Opportunities for selfless service are seldom convenient, but they can be the cement of a strong marriage.
There were times in the past when my wife’s tears would make me feel uneasy and I would respond, “Don’t cry. It’s not that bad.” This response to my own feelings of frustration (rather than to her pain) was telling her that she shouldn’t feel what she was feeling. Unwittingly, in this way, I was hindering her ability to communicate with me. When I stopped doing this, she became more open with her feelings. Most of the time people don’t need advice—they need someone who will listen to them and accept them as they are. “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” (James 1:19.)
The hardest time for people to listen is when anger is directed at them. When we are under attack, we become defensive and are tempted to “strike back” rather than learn the reason for the anger. A significant test of selflessness is to listen with our hearts to our partner’s feelings and needs. When we do, we will be more inclined to give needed attention and support.
A superb example of this was Lehi’s response to Sariah’s complaining in the wilderness. Lehi had sent his sons back to Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates of Laban. They were gone so long that Sariah, fearing that they had died in the wilderness, lashed out at her husband. She called him a visionary man who had led his family from their homes to perish in the wilderness.
Instead of striking back, Lehi sought to comfort her. “I know that I am a visionary man,” he said, and because of that “I know that the Lord will … bring [our sons] down again unto us in the wilderness.” In essence, he understood the true reason for her anger and frustration, selflessly absorbed her criticism, and then reached out to her in love and concern. (See 1 Ne. 5:1–7.) You can imagine the increase of love that this response caused within her.
Listening selflessly can be painful, however. You may be the one who needs to change. You may find out things about yourself that you don’t like. My wife once explained, “When we disagree on anything, you end up making me feel stupid.” That hurt. My first inclination was to show her she was wrong, but then I realized I was doing just what she had accused me of doing. I was embarrassed. I wanted to leave the discussion, but this time I suppressed my pain and listened carefully. Those moments were an important turning point in our relationship. The Lord has promised that if we act with “kindness, and pure knowledge,” our souls will be greatly enlarged. (See D&C 121:42.) Often since then the table has been turned and in my times of need she has seen through my growl to my anxiety, and behind my criticism she hears my frustration and helps me resolve it.
One of the most destructive forms of selfishness is closing out another’s feelings. The better way is to “hide not thyself from thine own flesh.” (Isa. 58:7.) Yet, we hide in a variety of ways: behind a newspaper, behind our career, or even behind church responsibilities. We also hide behind words, by talking about everything except the real wedge between us. I have found that when I abandon my own concerns and permit my wife to lead me into her world of joys and pain, I experience some of the most rewarding moments of my life. From such experiences, I have learned that love “seeketh not her own … but rejoiceth in the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:5–6.)
What if you find yourself “burned out” trying to attend to another’s needs? Remember three things: (1) the other person’s needs, (2) your own personal limits, which are affected by (3) your needs.
For instance, as soon as I returned from a four-day Scout camp-out recently, my wife said she needed to talk. I was completely exhausted and couldn’t concentrate on anything. I might have tried to listen to her until I fell asleep. I might have chastised her for not being sensitive to my need for sleep. But, I decided to let her know that I appreciated her need to share her experiences with me, but I was so tired I knew I would be a poor listener. We agreed on a specific time the next day when we would talk. Sharing your limitations of time or energy helps to avoid the impression that you do not care to be of help.
Sometimes when others request our help, we are truly stretched beyond our capacity. In such cases, we are justified in saying no. The kindest approach is to acknowledge the need, describe our limits, and kindly decline. Although we often feel inadequate when we cannot say yes to every request of family, committees, or friends, it is better to realize that we don’t have the resources to help and say no. What is essential to realize is that when we say no to one thing, we are saying yes to something that may be far more important.
How do we know whether we are recognizing our limits or are just being selfish? As I tried to answer this for myself, I prayerfully considered President Harold B. Lee’s statement that our priorities should be (1) personal, spiritual, and physical health; (2) family responsibilities; (3) Church responsibilities; (4) career and community responsibilities. (Bishop’s Training Course and Self-Help Guide, pp. I-25, 26.) If I am to serve my family and others in a meaningful way, I need to be spiritually and physically fit.
My wife encourages me to take the time for meditation, for exercise, and for relaxation. She supports me when I feel guilty about turning something down. She helps mobilize others to help when I am overwhelmed. She reminds me of King Benjamin’s counsel:
“I would that you should impart your substance … to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.
“And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” (Mosiah 4:26–27.)
Most of all, she listens and empathizes without criticism. There is no setting that teaches unselfishness better than the family. One father commented on his experiences:
“Being married and having children has impressed on my mind certain lessons, for whose learning I cannot help being grateful. Most are lessons of difficulty and duress. Most of what I am forced to learn about myself is not pleasant. The quantity of sheer impenetrable selfishness in the human breast (in my breast) is a never-failing source of wonderment. …
“Seeing myself through the unblinking eyes of an honest spouse is humiliating beyond anticipation. Maintaining a familial steadiness whatever the state of my own emotions is a standard by which I stand daily condemned. … Trying to act fairly to children … each of whom is at a different stage of perception and aspiration, is … baffling. …
“My dignity as a human being depends perhaps more on what sort of husband and parent I am, than on any professional work I am called upon to do. My bonds to my family hold me back from many sorts of opportunities. And yet these do not feel like bonds. They are, I know, my liberation. They force me to be a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be forced.” (Michael Novak, “The Family Out of Favor,” Harper’s Magazine, Apr. 1976, p. 42.)
In a society that emphasizes self-satisfaction, many are deserting their families in pursuit of an elusive self-fulfillment, either in their careers or through new and “more meaningful” relationships. There are instances when one must, with spiritual guidance, terminate a destructive relationship. But too often, selfishness dominates and people leave behind the richest opportunity for growth and eternal self-fulfillment—marriage and family.
Only through love and understanding can ultimate self-fulfillment be achieved. “The goal of marriage is unity and oneness, as well as self-development. Paradoxically, the more we serve one another, the greater is our spiritual and emotional growth.” (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 60.)