Friday, October 05, 2007

Selfishness & Selflessness, Marriage and Children

This little post is a spin-off from an article I read in the Star Tribune and a discussion I had with Mango immediately following said article. This is completely unorganized and unstructured.

The article in the Star Trib was about how babies change marriages, often for the worse. Husbands feel neglected and deprived of sex. Women feel overwhelmed, touched-out, and resentful of their husbands for helping so little & still wanting sex. Women miss their libidos and husbands miss them, too. Essentially, sex goes down the tubes, everybody gets unhappy, and people get divorced. Encouraging, huh?

While I agree that sex plays a central role in a healthy marriage - see my post about teens & birth control - I also see the rampant complaints following the birth of a baby as a symptom of something much more disturbing in our society...selfishness. Men don't get what they want because they aren't willing to support their wives, emotionally and practically. Women don't get what they want because they believe they can excuse any behavior postpartum by claiming hormonal issues. I don't want to belittle the role of hormones, either. Hormones bring out the nasty evilness in me, and I know how challenging it can be to see beyond the hormones. But, even so, hormones are not an excuse to neglect one's partner for months on end. The real truth is that, in our society, you're supposed to get what you want out of a relationship and not have to work real hard to get it.

It's a sticky subject. I know there are a lot of confounding factors. I've often heard it said that a marriage will continue in the trajectory it was before the birth of a child. So, perhaps, what we're really seeing is that a lot of marriages aren't doing all that well before the birth of a child.

I just finished a book set in an Amish community. (Hang in there, this is relevant.) One major characteristic of the Amish is their selflessness (real or imposed). People are expected to live their lives for others, serving others, and not for themselves. In an Amish society, people think of others first and very little of themselves at all. I'm not suggesting that this is necessarily healthy, either, but it can help us gain a little perspective. We don't *have* to live our lives for only ourselves. We may need, at times, to put our partners first in a relationship. And maybe there's a certain peace and contentment that comes from not being so hung up on our own selves all the time.

Mango & I talked about how that has a potential to destroy a relationship, too, though. Some people are totally willing to do anything and everything for their partner, and their partner is willing to do the same, but neither of them are willing to say what they really want or need to be happy in the relationship. They aren't willing to be a little bit "selfish," even though the other person would be totally ready and willing to give whatever they want. After a while, those two people are just constantly walking past each other, but never connecting. They are giving and giving and giving, but there isn't a lot of love between them.

Ok, another word about the Amish (and Catholics, too): These people see children as components to a healthy marriage. I'm not saying this because I believe everyone should have children, but because I believe that if you choose to have them it should be at least partly because you want them and you believe that children will grow out of the strong and healthy relationship you share. In other words, we tend to view children as an inconvenience in our society. We put them in their own rooms almost immediately after they are born and teach them to cry themselves to sleep. We have hundreds of gadgets and gismos and blinking lights to entertain and care for them so that we don't have to hold them all the time. Our society is full to the brim with things to make it easier for us to go on with our lives as they were before children. This is nonsensical if you really think about it. Why have children if you don't want your life to change? Have children if it's a meaningful part of your journey in life with your partner.

And, yes, I know that change is hard. I know I still long for those long, lazy afternoons with Mango with nothing to do and nowhere to go, lying in bed with the afternoon sun streaming in. But I wouldn't trade my girls for those afternoons. And our marriage, if anything, is stronger than ever before. There was certainly plenty of sleep deprivation (and still is some days), and we've had to squeeze in our intimate moments between the care and keeping of everyone else. But, we're here to serve and love each other. And in return, we get lots of service and love. It's a circle. It's not an exchange. Nobody is keeping track. Sometimes you give a lot and sometimes you need a lot. And as long as the balance doesn't tip too heavily in one direction for too long, it nourishes the relationship to carry on this way.

So, it seems like there are two types of marriages most commonly out there. There are the selfish kind where everybody just wants what they want, and their are the totally selfless kind with not enough communication. Being something in the middle is a challenge. Mango and I find ourselves constantly speaking of "the middle," being in the middle of God's plans for us, in the middle of the extremes of marriage relationships. It's hard, hard work, but I think it also makes us stronger, healthier and more satisfied. And it benefits our children.

This whole concept, as inarticulate as it is here, carried over into parenting. When we live to serve each other, but not in a way that doesn't allow us to also get our needs met, we can give our children all the love and nurturing they need without needing them to be what we want them to be. We can let them go and write their own life story because we aren't selfishly demanding them to be a reflection of ourselves or our desires. And we don't feel defeated by their mistakes. AND, if we find the balance between selfishness and complete selflessness, we also teach them that we are people, too, and we have feelings. They need to treat us with respect, compassion, and love. And, in that way, they learn from us to go out and create their own healthy relationships. They learn that they are valuable individuals and that others are valuable, too.


  1. I read this same article. As I'm on the cusp of getting married and thinking about having kids int he next few years, it really depressed me. Your insight encourages me... Thanks!

  2. Glad you stopped by my blog!! I'm so excited to get comments!! And, hey, I'm glad my little soapbox made sense!

  3. Well said! I totally agree that when you approach having children as an exciting part of your life, rather than an inconvenience, it makes your children an exciting part of your life, not an inconvenience.

    That said, I've been a single mom for more than 2 years, and it has given me a really different perspective on the whole parenting thing.

    The biggest transition in my relationship with my boyfriend was when I asked him to start helping me with my son. Pick him up from preschool, read him his bedtime story. We became 100% closer through his involvement in parenting... Interesting...

  4. You know, it doesn't seem to matter that the writing is "unstructured"--it still speaks to me. My husband and I have been struggling for quite some time, and I've been realizing that we've fallen into the "I want, I want" mode. I'm terrified, though, of the idea of selflessness, because it is so easy to go the complete opposite direction. I think you're right, that the answer is some middle ground. But boy is it hard to find! Especially with a young child in the home ... . But I want to learn.

  5. I found this to be a very interesting and encouraging article. I find one of the tougher things in relationships is finding a good place to call the line. "It's a circle. It's not an exchange. Nobody is keeping track. Sometimes you give a lot and sometimes you need a lot. And as long as the balance doesn't tip too heavily in one direction for too long, it nourishes the relationship to carry on this way."
    I am not sure if the author still visits these posts, but what are your thoughts when the balance tips a long way in one direction for a long time and stays there. How can you salvage it without making the relationship an exchange?
    Even bringing up the problem is inherently somewhat selfish (though not in my opinion in a bad way) because it is communicating your needs. I can't find a great solution here. If you withhold from your partner until they become giving, it benefits neither of you, but in some cases just asking doesn't do the trick.

  6. This is a very good question, and I'm working on a response. Stay tuned for a new blog post with my thoughts.


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