We live in an economy that survives by convincing us that what we have is not good enough and we deserve better. Advertisers constantly throw this idea in our faces. They need us to believe that we cannot live without whatever they are selling, or that our lives would be better with something new or different.
For example, it appears that the flat panel TV I spent a small fortune on three years is now junk because it is not 3D. We are led to believe that we have never lived until we have the newest, best, or different thing. The problem I consistently see as a marriage counselor is that this selfish way of thinking overflows into our expectations in marriage. We start down the slippery path of thinking that our spouse is not good enough and we deserve better.
To avoid this tendency we need to take stock of how we think of and relate to our spouse. Are you being too selfish in your marriage? When I ask this question of couples in counseling, I am typically engulfed by a laundry list of all the things the other spouse is doing wrong. However, focusing on what our spouse does wrong can hinder our ability to change whatever we may be doing wrong. Our spouse obviously may need to change as well, but our focus has to be on what we can control, which is ourselves. Here are some questions we should ask ourselves to see if we are being too selfish and consumeristic in our relationships:
1. Do I confuse my desires with my needs? Often when we want something from our marriage that does not seem to come in the time or way we want, we may begin to demand it more. We slowly convince ourselves that the want is a need. This can lead to increasing and unfair demands on our spouse.
2. Do I care more about “what’s in it for me?” than “what’s in it for my spouse?” I think most of us would like to say we always try to put our spouse first. However, if we are honest with ourselves, do we? I often suggest that people imagine if I could be a fly on the wall for two weeks, would my observations of their actions tell me their focus is on their best interest or on their spouse’s? We often sadly find ourselves in the position of jockeying for our interests or wants on issues. We see a good marriage as one where we can openly fight for our position and our spouse gives us what we want. After all, if they love us they will make sure we get what we want, right? Instead of focusing on jockeying for what we want, we would all be better served if our focus was on making sure our spouse gets what they want out of the relationship. We should fight for our spouse instead of ourselves. If both spouses do this, the wants are still met, but they are met in a way that benefits the relationship instead of just benefitting ourselves.
3. Do I unfavorably compare my spouse to other people? This is a dangerous trap that many easily fall into. We see a friend's spouse, a co-worker, or the "perfect" couple at church. We may think something like, "I wish my husband/wife was more like that person," or "Why can't our relationship be like theirs?" The important thing to remember is that we don't have all the cards. Sure, that person may seem great, but didn't our spouse seem great when we first met them, too? If we lived with one of these "model" spouses, knew their imperfections, and experienced years of the stresses of life with them, they would likely lose their appeal. They may in reality be a hornet’s nest that no one else sees. Maybe others look at your spouse and wonder if their marriage were better if they had someone like your spouse. The tough reality of marriage is that we know more bad things about our spouses than anyone else in the world. Knowing anyone that well will certainly bring faults to the surface, no matter how good they are. Let's be grateful for what we have and realize that no one is perfect.
4. Do I believe that my relationship should be as exciting and easy as it seemed when we first got together? I am a firm believer that couples can have satisfying, exciting, meaningful relationships long term. However, it is not always smooth sailing. Many couples get married in younger years when the stresses of children, work, school, student loans, mortgages, church callings, etc. are not as severe. Adding those pressures will test any relationship. It may not be as exciting every day as it seemed when you first started dating, but it can still be wonderful.
5. Do I believe that unrealistic relationship fantasies can be reality? We often embark on the path of marriage with expectations, hopes, and dreams; however, rarely do things go as planned. Yet, we often still hope for the perfect marriage we are supposed to have. It is a great goal to have a strong marriage, but marriage is messy; it is not perfect. That is okay, and we need to have that realistic expectation. I typically encourage couples to think of relationship satisfaction on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the best the relationship has been, and 1 being the worst. I think a realistic goal is to get the relationship to average somewhere between 7 and 8. There may be days it is a 10 and days it is a 5, but a 7-8 average is realistic and can be wonderfully satisfying.
6. Do I believe it is my spouse’s responsibility to make my relationship better? Both spouses have a responsibility to make the relationship better. Rarely does lasting improvement occur if only one spouse makes changes. The important thing to remember is that we can't control our spouse. Our focus has to be on what we can do to make the relationship better. Are we too focused on the laundry list of issues our spouse needs to improve? I often hear couples rationalize away their poor behavior by saying things like, "If he/she hadn't said that, then I wouldn't have been so rude," or "As soon as she/he stops nagging, it will be easy to be nice.” The fact is, we are responsible for what we say and do. If what we say or do is not how a loving spouse would act, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Take responsibility. Don't wait for your spouse to change before you do. Take the initiative and get the positive change moving in your relationship.
If we can all focus on changing ourselves to be the best spouse we can be, marriage problems would largely vanish. President Monson gave incredibly wise counsel in the general Priesthood meeting of the most recent conference that supports these ideas. He quoted Howard W. Hunter who said, “Being happily and successfully married is generally not so much a matter of marrying the right person as it is being the right person.” President Monson added, "If any of you are having difficulty in your marriage, I urge you to do all that you can to make whatever repairs are necessary."
For a printable selfishness in marriage questionnaire, visit: www.swintoncounseling.com.
Is there a marriage or family relationship issue that you would like our relationship expert Jonathan Swinton to address in future columns? If so, send him an email at email@example.com.
Jonathan Swinton is an LDS Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He is an approved LDS Family Services Referred Provider, accepts bishop referrals, and is available to provide marriage and family therapy services and weekend couple retreats to anyone interested. He is also available to speak on marriage issues at Relief Society and ward activities. Contact him at Swinton Counseling: 801-647-9951, www.swintoncounseling.com.