Often I have been asked, “Since selfishness is a major cause of marriage problems, should I ever put my needs over those of my spouse? Do I always have to put my companion’s needs first?”
Actually, there is a wide range of choices available to husbands and wives as they attempt to balance their personal needs and the needs of their spouses. “Taking care of my needs without consideration of others” is just one end of the scale; “taking care of others’ needs without considering my own” is at the other. As a marriage counselor, I see severe spiritual and social problems at both ends of the scale.
Who enjoys being around a person who is concerned only about himself, who must always be right, must do what only he wants to do all the time, 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, has lots of 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 set aside their needs and wants in the interest of family, church callings, neighbors, and friends. But there comes a time when even the strongest person must draw strength from others.
An important 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 upsetting her diet. One woman may appreciate her husband’s help in the home, while another may see it as interfering in her stewardship.
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 upset (or irritated, or anxious). Can we talk about it?” Then try to listen without giving advice or criticism. Our purpose is to understand. One way of doing this is to repeat in our own words what we have heard so that we can come to an understanding of our spouse’s feelings and concerns.
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 television show sometimes. Opportunities for selfless service are seldom convenient, but they can be the glue that holds a strong marriage together.
There were times in the past when my wife’s tears would make me feel uncomfortable 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. Without meaning to, I was not helping her 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.
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 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.)
In time of need, we have to look beyond angry complaints to the anxiety that causes them, and we need to listen for the frustration that often hides behind criticism. Without doing this, we can neither relate to, nor help resolve the problems involved.
One of the most destructive forms of selfishness is hiding from another’s feelings. 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 problem between us. I have found that when I forget my own concerns and let my wife 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 emotionally worn out trying to attend to another’s needs? Remember three things: (1) the other person’s needs, (2) your own personal limitations at the time, (3) your needs.
For instance, as soon as I returned from a four-day Scout camping trip 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 complained about her 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—and we did.
Sometimes when others request our help, we may be at a point where we really can’t accept any additional burdens. In such cases, we are justified in saying no. The kindest approach is to acknowledge the need of the other person, outline our limitations at that time, and kindly decline. Although we often feel inadequate when we cannot say yes to every little request, it is better for us to realize that we don’t have the resources to help everyone, every time. What we need to understand is that when we say no to one thing, we are saying yes to something that may be far more important. As King Benjamin counseled:
“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; italics added.)
In a society that emphasizes self-satisfaction, many are deserting their families for some kind of “self-fulfillment,” either in their careers or through new and “more meaningful” relationships. There are instances when one must, with spiritual guidance, bring to an end a destructive relationship. But, too often, selfishness dominates and one leaves behind the richest opportunity for growth and eternal self-fulfillment—marriage and family. There is no setting that teaches unselfishness better than the family. And only through love and understanding can ultimate self-fulfillment be achieved.