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The success of marriage comes not in finding the “right” person, but in the ability of both partners to adjust to the real person they inevitably realize they married (John Fischer).

That’s such a good statement: “…adjusting to the real person they inevitably realize they married.” This month alone, I have heard statements and questions like these more times than I care to count:

“If my spouse would just ______, we would be happy.”

“Why should I have to give up ______ for them?” 

“Why can’t they understand that I deserve ______?

Why is this happening?

One writer and counselor, Don Ibbitson, makes this honest and convicting assertion:

“I have met with hundreds of couples in my tenure in counseling and have, after much contemplation, review and prayer, narrowed the list to three major reasons why Christian marriages fail. Here they are, in order of priority:

Selfishness,

Selfishness,

Selfishness.”

So there they are, the “three” reasons why Christian marriages are failing. Selfishness is one of the most major issues that causes division in a marriage, and it doesn’t seem to be talked about enough. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Ibbitson’s statement. What does selfishness do? When this issue is present in the lives of one or both partners:

It creates barriers that prevent effective, healthy communication and causes feelings of exhaustion, stubbornness, frustration and eventually, apathy.

It prevents the building of trust and leads to controlling behaviors.

It makes threats of divorce and issues ultimatums with the belief that the problems being faced have gone past the point of “solvable.”

It makes you feel like you are competing with your spouse.

It causes men and women to become distracted, addicted, and convinced that their spouse can no longer give them what they need.

It causes us to become entitled and create expectations to be served, rather than to serve; it makes us prioritize ourselves and our work above our spouse.

Have you ever experienced any of these issues? I know I certainly have, and my wife has always been so patient as I learn to identify and kill any selfishness in my life. A marriage in which both people identify themselves as Christ followers, but struggle to treat their spouse as Christ commands can be a breeding ground for selfishness. We can end up serving the “self” and failing to serve our spouse. Philippians 2: 3-4 says, “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

Dennis and Barbara Rainey, marriage experts and lovers of God have this to say about selfishness: “Two people trying to go their own selfish, separate ways can never hope to experience the oneness of marriage as God intended…it is possibly the most dangerous threat to oneness in marriage. It affects how we talk to each other, how we divide responsibilities in the home, how we resolve conflicts, and even how we spend our time.”

Defeating Selfishness in Your Marriage

Just one verse prior in the 2nd chapter of Philippians, before selfishness is defined, it says this, “… being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (vs 2). Acts 20:35 compels us to “… remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” These verses identify unity and giving as weapons used to kill selfishness. Check out what Dennis and Barbara Rainey have to say:

“The answer for ending selfishness is found in Jesus and His teachings. He showed us that instead of wanting to be first, we must be willing to be last. Instead of wanting to be served, we must serve. Instead of trying to save our lives, we must lose them. We must love our neighbors (our spouses) as much as we love ourselves.” [What scriptures are they referring to? Check out Matthew 16:25; 20:16; 20:28; and 22:39].

The “Bid”

So how do we do this? How do I be last, serve, lose my life, and love my spouse better? Start with small daily communication and interactions. I want to introduce a practical exercise for you to try at home to help destroy selfishness and promote unity through active listening and giving of your time and intentions. Selfishness causes us to miss “bids” and therefore, opportunities to connect genuinely with our spouse. This tool comes from John Gottman, a well-respected figure in the field of professional counseling:

“A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection. Bids show up in simple ways, a smile or wink, and more complex ways, like a request for advice or help. In general, women make more bids than men, but in the healthiest relationships, both partners are comfortable making all kinds of bids.

Bids can get tricky, however, and admittedly I sometimes miss more bids than I don’t. Indeed many men struggle in this regard, so it’s important to pay attention. Bids usually have a secondary layer – the true meaning behind the words. Call it the the difference between text and subtext. A few examples to get your brain going:

Text                                                          Subtext
How do I look?                                         Can I have your attention?
Let’s put the kids to bed.                           Can I have your help?
I talked to my sister today.                        Will you chat with me?
Did I tell you the one about…?                 Will you enjoy me?
Want to cuddle?                                        Can I have your affection?
Want to play Cribbage?                             Will you play with me?
I had a terrible lunch meeting today.         Will you help me de-stress?

To “miss” a bid is to “turn away.” Turning away can be devastating. It’s even more devastating than “turning against” or rejecting the bid. Rejecting a bid at least provides the opportunity for continued engagement and repair. Missing the bid results in diminished bids, or worse, making bids for attention, enjoyment, and affection somewhere else.”

Selfishness sabotages meaningful connection. We can take a step away from selfishness and towards serving and loving each other by looking for opportunities to engage in the “bid”.

I pray that you will have the courage to push past any selfish feelings or stubbornness that arises at the idea of asking someone to walk with you and your spouse through this time of healing. Sometimes we need the help of an outside person to “untangle” the mess we have gotten ourselves into. Unfortunately, selfishness can often prevent us from enlisting the help of a professional Christian counselor to assist in this process. Don’t give up! Your marriage is not too far gone.

* I want to be clear that I am not advocating for repair attempts in a marriage where perpetual physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse are occurring. I will never condone or support an abusive marriage and it is my personal/professional belief that divorce is often necessary in these circumstances. 

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