During our six-month engagement, my wife and I received marital advice from just about every married person we collectively knew, which, when considered in total, amounted to a good deal of counsel. But now, 20 years later, I can recall only one small gem of wisdom given us by one individual. It is the same bit of advice that I now pass along to friends and relatives who become engaged to wed (with the silent hope it won’t get lost amid all the other advice they’re sure to receive).
My stake president had requested a meeting with my fiancée and me. Since my bride-to-be was from another region, he wanted a chance to meet her and to speak with us together as a couple.
After congratulating us and complimenting me on my excellent judgment, he struck a serious tone. He asked us whether we thought couples who ended up divorced were as much in love during their engagements as we were at that moment (and we were feeling very much in love to be sure). We both supposed that they probably were. He then asked us what we thought could possibly have gone so wrong in a relationship that began with as much love as we two shared at that moment. His point was not lost on us: No one ever expects to get divorced when they’re blissfully engaged or newly married. And yet, it happens. We both sensed there was also a deeper, more personal, even somewhat ominous signal in his observation: It could happen even to us!
Here was a prospect that neither of us had ever contemplated before. It’s doubtful that many engaged couples ever ponder the possibility of their own divorce, even though a disturbingly high number do eventually end up divorcing. I think he must have noticed our concerned glances at one another, because the next thing he said to us was reassuring and profound in its simplicity.
He suggested that virtually every divorce is the result of just one single, solitary thing: selfishness. Either one or both of them place themselves and their wants and desires above those of their spouse. While the resulting symptoms may become much more complicated, the underlying disease is the same: plain old selfishness. President Gordon B. Hinckley seemed to support this premise when he taught some years ago, “Selfishness is the cause of most of the domestic problems that afflict so many homes of our nation.”1
My stake president then gave us the antidote against this insidious, love-killing cancer with a single word: selflessness.
He challenged us both to look for opportunities to serve the other, to do little chores around the house, and to think up ways to surprise and delight one another. And he promised us that if we would both do this faithfully and without ever keeping tally of what each had done for the other, not only would we never divorce but we would live quite happily ever after. What a promise!
For 20 years now we’ve been field-testing this sage counsel from a wise stake president, and I am pleased to report that so far, his promise is golden.
In the interest of complete disclosure, I must admit that we’ve had the same ups and downs that most married couples have. But during the down times, if I stop to check myself against the challenge we were given, I can always recognize where I’ve been selfish. Even seemingly small things, like leaving the house without a good-bye squeeze or thoughtlessly pouring the last of the milk into my own bowl of cereal, contribute to these down times.
Thankfully, however, when I begin to look for any opportunity to do some kind thing for my wife—like decorating our front door with a Welcome Home message when she’s been away, or calling our home answering machine and leaving a funny recording to make her laugh—it never takes long to correct the slide and raise our happiness quotient significantly.
It’s a simple little one-to-one correlation: the more you give of yourself in thoughtful, selfless deeds, the more you get back in love, tenderness, and happiness. The best part is that it really works. It works in any relationship but seems particularly well adapted to marriage partners.
And so to anyone who is now married or who plans to be married someday, amid the copious and varied advice that you receive, please remember this one little gem of wisdom: selflessness is key to happiness in marriage. And if you accept the challenge of selflessness, fulfillment of its promise will follow.
“The enemies of a good home are many. Selfishness is the first. Out of selfishness come quarrels, misunderstandings, and often divorce.”
Elder Mark E. Petersen (1900–1984) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, The Way to Peace, 1969, 68.