Monday, October 23, 2006

Dueling Selfishness

I've been blogging here for about five months now, all told, and I've told you several great stories from Molly's and my lives. In the course of 26+ years of marriage together, we've really come a long way, and I've enjoyed sharing with you all some of what we've learned over the years.

But we're not this wonderfully saintly couple living in a faint glow of unearthly light. We can be as petty and selfish as anybody else; probably the biggest thing we've learned over the years is how to repent and apologize sooner than we used to.

From the beginning years of our marriage, our most persistent, uh, 'challenge' has been what I call 'Dueling Selfishness', or, as Molly puts it, 'My Needs; No, My Needs'. For various reasons, I think we both grew up being fairly accustomed to getting our own way. Which meant that we were ripe for some real choice ego-clashes when we were married. "Of course, you can easily see that I need thus-and-such, so you should just step aside and let me have my way." "But, it's even more obvious that you should defer to my needs, isn't it?" And so it went.

Over time, we got tired of the endless circle of 'My needs; no, my needs', and started learning to deal constructively with the situation. Sometimes, it meant one or the other of us had to defer to the other; sometimes it meant finding an agreeable compromise. But the most fundamental change was to our attitudes.

The biblical epistle to the Romans says, "Outdo one another in showing honor," and that was a real straightforward challenge to us. We had been outdoing one another in asserting our will, and here the apostle was urging us to outdo one another in looking after each other's good, rather than our own. And what a fundamental transformation that brought. Rather than trying to manipulate Molly so that I got what I wanted, I needed to simply look after her good; and likewise, she needed to look after mine before her own. And the result was that both our needs got met, without all the bickering and anxiety.

Of course, this entails a pretty significant 'leap of faith' - that, if I give up worrying about my own needs being met so as to look after Molly's, my needs will indeed be covered. And likewise for her. I honestly don't remember if one of us 'went first', hoping the other would 'catch on', or if it was something we worked out together, but in the fullness of time, the magic worked.

Someone has said that marriage is not a 50/50 proposition, it's a 100/100 proposition. That is, it's not about me giving half and Molly giving half; it's about both of us giving all we have - my life for hers, her life for mine. And it's not about 'keeping score' of who's putting in more or less than the other. We both just 'go all-in'.

And of course, we've learned this perfectly, and our marriage is a smoothly-running machine. . .

Uh, no - not really.

Just this past weekend, we had one of our classic 'Dueling Selfishness' quarrels. Molly got to feeling exhausted by the day-to-day work of running the Jones family household - shopping and cooking alone are a huge amount of work, especially the type of cooking she's doing to keep me in good health and (we hope) long life. So she got kind of cranky and snappy. . .

And I responded very sensitively and graciously, you can be sure - I told her that if having me alive and healthy was just too much for her, why I'd be happy to go back to 300 pounds and leave her a widow with kids at home. (See how helpful I was?).

And it went round and round like that for an hour or more, and both of us were feeling like the other had suddenly, inexplicably stopped caring about what happened to us. Until finally Molly stopped and said, "My needs; no, my needs".

The spell was broken, and we knew what we had to do. I had to shift my focus, and instead of making sure that I got what I wanted, I needed to think about what Molly needed, and how I could help that happen. And she needed to step back from ultimatums and assure me that I was worth it to her. And we both needed to apologize for the hurtful things we'd said.

And the thing is, those hurtful words don't just dissolve when the apology is made and accepted; they leave psychic wounds behind that take some time to heal. The 100/100 marriage takes a LOT of trust between spouses, and when trust is damaged, it isn't instantly built back up. But we're building some 'good history' with each other, and establishing a firm base of trust which we can stand on, even when some peripheral chunk of trust is damaged. Because we've got many years' worth of experience now that the other is looking out for our good, it's easier to treat specific instances of selfishness as aberrations.

So I want you to know that we aren't this perfect couple with a perfect marriage - I'm as selfish as anyone else, and I can be as petty and pissy as anyone else. But, by God's grace, we've learned how to be married in a good and life-giving way. . .


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