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If You're not Getting Enough From Your Marriage, Then You're Probably not Giving Enough to Your Marriage

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

We’re a nation of people who seem to be fixated on our personal needs, often to the exclusion of the needs of others around us. One place where this can be clearly seen is in modern marriages, especially those that are conflicted and failing.  Here’s an example of what I mean.

Recently I conducted an initial consultation with a couple who were having serious marital problems. This meeting was not unlike many others that I’ve done. After a few amenities were shared, both partners wasted little time describing how their marriage and spouse were failing to meet their needs.

I listened patiently with a discerning ear and a trained eye, while keeping tight control over the conversation to prevent it from escalating out of control. After listening to about 20 minutes of complaints, I felt I had some understanding of the painful exchanges this couple was having. At that point, I moved the conversation into a different direction.  

 “Correct me if I’m wrong, but here’s what I’ve heard. You’re both here because neither of you believe you’re getting enough of your needs met by your partner, which means that your partner’s needs are also being ignored. Correct?”

Both appeared to reluctantly agree. I guessed their hesitancy was related to the second part of my statement, but I didn’t pursue this hunch. Instead, I continued undeterred. “Okay then, if this is correct, I have the solution.” At this point both perked up a little and seemed more engaged and interested.  

“Here’s what I think. If you’re not getting enough from your marriage, then maybe it’s because you’re not giving enough to both your marriage and your partner.” I then pointed out that spouses who report high levels of marital satisfaction aren’t only focused on what their getting from their partner and marriage, they’re also equally focused on what they’re giving to their partner and marriage.

”Okay, so here’s the bottom line. I don’t expect you to completely understand these statements today. But, if you’re interested in meeting with me again, you should know that a large part of the work we’ll be doing together will be devoted to helping you develop a much deeper understanding of these statements.”

I’m happy to report that by the end of this session, both decided to commit to six months of therapy. I’m equally pleased to report that as they were both able to shift away from a self-centered perspective, to a perspective that’s characterized by a spirit of service, giving and compassion for their partner, marital satisfaction slowly but surely began returning.    

A Society Fixated on Personal Needs

As I’ve mentioned, we’re a society that’s fixated on our personal needs. I believe that’s one reason why many unhappy spouses have bought into the notion that they deserve to be happy, and if they aren’t happy, then it must mean that their partner and marriage has failed to meet their needs. In fact, the advice in most self-help books that addresses marital satisfaction is predicated on these assertions.

As pervasive as these attitudes are, I also believe these assertions are fatally flawed. Moreover, some of the newest research - and by extension, couple’s therapy - coming out of the human sciences suggests that no one can make us happy, and that we are in charge of our happiness. This work, which has an empirical foundation, also maintains that happiness essentially emerges when we give of ourselves to others, rather than when we focus on our needs and take from others.

But these findings, while they’re being marketed as innovative, are anything but new and innovative to those of us who know Christ. That’s because Christian relationships are based on service, giving and compassion.

Service, Giving and Self-Sacrificial Compassion

In St. Mark’s Gospel Jesus is quoted as offering the following counsel to his disciples who are in the midst of a heated argument. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (MK 10: 42-45).

In effect, this counsel was alluding to two key attributes that characterize Christ-centered relationships. Based on Christ’s own example, the first is that a spirit of service, giving and self-sacrificial compassion would be part and parcel of Christians’ transactions and interactions with one another. The second would be that these attributes would distinguish Christian relationships from non-Christian relationships that are generally based on power politics, manipulation and selfish attitudes of entitlement.

Applying These Attributes to Marriage

In my own work with hundreds of conflicted couples, I’ve noticed that when couples are able to make the shift away from blaming their partner and marriage for their unhappiness, while also adopting a spirit of service, giving and self-sacrificial compassion marital satisfaction slowly begins to return. Conversely, couples who can’t make this shift remain disconnected and stuck in a painfully conflicted, destructive marriage – one that often slip-slides toward marital meltdown and divorce.

All of which means that if you’re not getting enough from your marriage, then you’re probably not serving your partner enough, you’re probably not giving enough, and you’re probably not relating to your partner in a self-sacrificial compassionate way. One way to remedy this deficit is to shift from a self-centered perspective that compels us to focus on our own needs, and blame our partner, to a Christ-centered attitude of giving, service and self-sacrificial compassion. So, here’s the bottom line.  If you’re not getting enough from your marriage, then you’re probably not giving enough to your marriage and partner.

Father Charles directs the Archdiocese’s outreach ministry to intermarried couples and their families. For more information, log onto the Interfaith Marriage Web site using the following address:   www.interfaith.goarch.org.

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