Service Agreement – Reflections on Marriage

Recently, a single guy I know posted an link on Facebook to an article about marriage. The author was a woman who described the typical day with her husband, surviving their kids and life’s madness, and she came across very overbearing and controlling of the man she married. This story resonated with this single guy and he stated it sounded like every marriage he’d ever seen. So, he asked Facebook “What’s the point of a man getting married? What’s the benefit for a guy?”.

Because if you want to start a heedless and angry discussion, just ask your Facebook friends.

We happened to cross paths later and we discussed the outraged women who responded, all of whom couldn’t seem to defend marriage without seeming as overbearing as the woman who wrote the article. The responses only further entrenched his perception of marriage and his desire to stay single.

I don’t know him well, but I shared my thoughts, and the ideas seemed to solidify as I expressed them. I even found myself challenged to do better and live up to what I was describing. As a result, I’m writing it down.

Sadly, many marriages seem to lumber along in an ongoing power struggle and most seem to fall into one of two broad categories: 1) the marriage where the man of the house has the final say, makes the major decisions, and continues with some variation of the 1950s stereotype. They follow his interests or desires, and he “knows best”. 2) The marriage where the woman is in charge, keeping her husband in line, or in some cases – on track and presentable, while she seems regularly unhappy and often impossible to please.

I find both of these structures to be completely repellant. To me the whole idea of living with one person the rest of your life requires teamwork. Unlike a roommate relationship, everything about the two of you becomes linked emotionally, financially, and even legally. In many ways, it’s now the two of you fighting for survival against everything else in the world. Equal ground and power are vital. To put it another way: you’re in a war-zone alongside that person and at times you will be under fire. You are of equal rank, with different specialties. Who’s in charge depends on your personal skill-sets, the moment, or the enemy.

Now that I’ve been married more than 15 years I realize I’ve seen very few marriages worth emulating. But in recent years I’ve come across a counter-intuitive example of marriage that takes the team idea to another level. Along the way it elevates both partners and creates those rare marriages everyone would like to have.

Each person in a marriage works to “out-serve” their partner.

I’m not talking about some spineless subservient thing. The idea here is to step outside of yourself, your needs, the life-long training you have to be self-sufficient… and work to make sure the person you pledged your life to is happy, fulfilled, and cared for.

When we’re dating we do this automatically and it seems to happen easily. At the beginning we overcompensate to make sure the other person is happy, impressed, and well respected. Then years later after rings are on and life has a pattern we devalue our spouse and focus our efforts toward things we’d have easily dropped for a first date.

The difficult but miraculous part of the mutual service idea is that everyone winds up happier and more fulfilled than they would be taking care of themselves. If done correctly, I’m focusing on my wife and her needs and she’s focusing on mine. The result is both of us are having our needs met, while feeling respected and important. If we took care of our own needs we might end in the same place, but by stepping out of our own selfish independence and putting someone else first we are better people. We wind up more flexible, less insular, and more observant – traits steadily being lost in the modern world as we all stare down at our smartphone. And because we are also being served, cared for, and loved, we automatically love the person being good to us. Spouses doing this for each other can create a self-perpetuating relationship of personal growth and marriage strength.

And I’m not doing this well.

I’ve seen glimpses of it, like the sun breaking through storm clouds. There’ve been days, even weeks, when I’ve noticed the needs and desires of my wife, made them my priority, and felt her focus on me. For those times I always felt love grow and our relationship strengthen. And like working out or taking on a new habit, it altered my ability and awareness, helping me to do more.

But like Peter walking on water, eventually I shift my gaze and sink. I give something else more priority. Or I fixate on an area where I don’t feel served or appreciated and re-find my selfish independence with some variation of “If I’m not a priority in this area then why am I making the effort?”. Then I pull back to deal with my own stuff, and I leave her to deal with hers. We can survive this way, absolutely, as we are both intelligent self-sufficient adults. But we can’t thrive this way. If it goes on long enough, it begins to erode the marriage itself. There’s evidence in every couple that breaks apart – they were once focused on each other and now they’re only focused on themselves and getting away.

Ironically, it seems most couples are willing to practice this selfless serving with their kids and not their partner. Parenting requires sacrifice of your personal wants for the benefit of the little person (or people) in your life. Even terrible parents have these moments of selflessness. We as parents justify the situation because our children can’t do everything for themselves and our spouse can cope, so we leave them on their own. What message are we sending our kids if they see us devalue the person we promised to love, protect, and respect for the rest of our lives?

Equally toxic is living so that who you are gets lost and swallowed up in the person you are serving. Seeing an adult vanish into just a vessel obsessed with another person’s happiness, be that a child or a spouse, is a sad waste.

The marriages where I’ve seen service demonstrated always consisted of partners who each had involved lives and individual interests, they were complete people on their own. As a result, a person who knows themselves and still sacrifices for another gives that action meaning. Conversely, a person who serves because they have no other purpose doesn’t seem like they are serving at all. We can’t make another person a priority if we have nothing else going on in our lives. Having personal interests and goals is vital for a fulfilling and challenging life. Then stepping out of that to serve someone else has weight.

I’m not suggesting serving your spouse like this is easy, and I’m certainly not saying I’m a living example of the behavior. I’m working to do better at it every day, every week. I’m putting it out there as a goal. I believe it can and does make worthwhile marriages.

And back to catalyst that got me thinking on this… I believe a thriving marriage can take a man and make him better than he could ever be on his own.

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