marriage bed symbol

marriage bed symbol

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Four Marriage Killers - Selfishness


I have been watching with great interest the discussion on these last few blogs, especially the discussion concerning the justification of masturbation in a sexless marriage. The link to some of that discussion is here:

I thought deeply on these comments. Some felt that I didn’t go far enough; that perhaps I should have told him that he should leave his wife under such circumstances.

Whether or not this reader should leave his wife, I couldn’t say. We do not have her side of the story, and my reply to him was based upon his side of the story.

I’m sure there are many others who may wonder why I didn’t suggest he leave her.
In large part, my main reason is the purpose of my blog today – the final of the four marriage killers: selfishness.

The Root of Most Marital Problems = Selfishness

President Spencer W. Kimball spoke at length of the marital bane that is selfishness. He said:

“In the process of learning what is right for you at any particular time, I have always found it helpful to use a basic measuring stick: Is it selfish? I have concluded that most of our sins are really sins of selfishness…”[1]

I have demonstrated before in other articles how marriage is a growth process. The act of getting sealed in the temple is only the first step for everyone to begin this progression process of growing together – of becoming “one” – an “eternal” unit. It does not happen the instant we make our vows, and it is not without difficulty. Yet the results of such a process (if we do not allow selfishness to seep in) will bring sweet rewards over time.

Selfish Reasons for Marriage Can Still Work

This is why marriage is not a decision to be made lightly. Those who marry for money, for fame, status, to spite another, lust, revenge or on the rebound, may be thwarting their personal progression before it even begins.

This is not to say that we have to have perfect reasons to marry – most often don’t and many have wonderful marriages. Those of us in the Church often marry at very young ages, compared to society as a whole. We may choose a partner for primarily superficial reasons in the beginning. Whether we choose wisely or not, the growth process can still occur, and progression can still happen – if we approach the process without selfishness:

“Did I pick the right person? This question inverts the starting and ending points. We do not pick our perfect match because we ourselves are not perfect. The universe hands us a flawless diamond – in the rough. Only if we are willing to polish off every part of ourselves that cannot join do we end up with a soul mate.”[2]

Differentiation and Emotional Fusion

This process is why God wants us to marry. It cannot begin until we marry…until we have committed ourselves by covenant for this process to begin. Trying to gain this growth in any other way (fornication, cohabitation, friends with benefits, same-sex ‘marriage’, pornography, adultery, etc.) is artificial and superficial at best…and again we always find selfishness at the root of it.

Dr. David Schnarch refers to this polishing process within marriage as “differentiation.”  It’s a new word for most people. In LDS terms, it means to use our free agency to become non-dependent on other people for our happiness, self-worth, self-esteem or self-respect.

The opposite state of differentiation is emotional fusion. Most people carry some form of this in their lives, especially when they’re newly married and the newlywed glow of love has worn off. Many people may even feel that emotional fusion is love, but it is not.

Those who lean toward emotional fusion base their ability to be happy (or their self-esteem or self-worth or their status in society) entirely or in part on how other people view them, speak about them or treat them.

We’ve all seen examples of fusion in many kinds of personal relationships, such as:
·        the spouse who insists on winning an argument
·        a wife who regularly asks if she looks fat and then doesn’t accept the compliment her husband gives her
·        the husband who gets into a rage when his dinner gets burned
·        the husband who thinks his wife is frigid because her sex drive isn’t as strong as his or rejects his wife because her sex drive is stronger than his and he feels his manhood is threatened
·        a parent who throws a fit and may even get violent if the children do not acknowledge their place as the head of the household, and they feel threatened that the children are showing disrespect.

Dr. David Schnarch said “…people who are emotionally fused are controlled by their connection. They have lost their ability to direct themselves and so get swept up in how people around them are feeling. There’s room for only one opinion, one position.”[3]

There is no room or place for win/win in such a relationship, only win/lose.

Individuality is Not Selfish by Itself

“Choose ye this day whom ye will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:15

“It is not good for man to be alone…”

Each person holds within them two basic, God-given drives: the need to be their own person, and the need to be accepted and loved by a person or group.

Neither of these desires is selfish. Our individuality enables us to think, hold opinions, and learn. The desire for individuality enables us to care for ourselves and to take action on our faith. Individuality is a creative force.

Our desires to be part of a group enable us to form loving connections, families, and to achieve cohesiveness in a church or a community.

Emotional Fusion and the Four Marriage Killers

Emotional fusion is a connection as well – but a different kind. Emotional fusion is not love. It is an emotional connection that does not make room for another person’s ideas, ability to repent and be forgiven, or even breathing space. It requires mindless conformity. It is two people fighting to be heard and understood, but not willing to understand the other.

A fused person fears to reveal all of themselves to their spouse. They fear they will lose themselves, or be hurt beyond repair. They may feel their only other option is to pull away from the tremendous pull their spouse has on them. They may engage in silence or separation. Communication fails, and secrets begin to thrive, since neither spouse trusts the other with their real feelings.

Separation and silence may frighten the fused spouse (ex. “How am I supposed to live without you?”). When our spouse disagrees with us, a fight ensues. If one spouse declines the other’s sexual invitation, the fused spouse takes it very personally, and may harbor resentment that grows and festers.

A spouse who is emotionally fused is like a mirror. They look to their husband or wife or extended family or friends to tell them who they are. They may find it hard to be alone, simply because they have no one to reflect against. To them, change becomes something that is threatening. Change means that their self-esteem is at risk, and they can’t allow that.

Spencer W. Kimball tried to warn couples about the permeating consequences of selfishness and fusion in marriage. He said,

 “If the faults of two people are more nearly equal, if both of them have a beam-impaired vision that still gives no justification for a selfish, unforgiving attitude…The escapist never escapes. If two people, selfish and self-centered, and without the spirit of forgiveness, escape from each other, they cannot escape from themselves. The disease is not cured by the separation or the divorce, and it will most assuredly follow along in the wake of future marriages.”[4]

Emotional fusion is the manifestation of selfishness in a marriage. It must be addressed and corrected individually for a relationship to get on the right track toward progressing together as an eternal couple.

For this reason, it does no good to counsel people to arbitrarily end their relationship when it’s in trouble. Their lack of ability to differentiate will simply follow them to their next relationship…and the next…and the next. Emotional fusion and selfishness will stop an eternal marriage in its tracks every time.

Emotional Fusion in Our Sex Life

Problems in our sex life are often the first sign of emotional fusion. The act of lovemaking is such a close, intimate, sacred, powerful and self-exposing action that, if the process of emotional fusion is beginning, sex may feel smothering. The spouse may begin to feel they are losing their sense of identity or exposing themselves too much. Sex may get shut down entirely.

If one spouse expresses this fusion behavior, some may say that the solution is to stand up to our spouse – to lay down the law and tell them we won’t put up with this situation anymore. The spouse is broken, there is nothing we can do to change it, and the marriage should end.

Maybe it should….or maybe it shouldn’t. We could also ask ourselves, “What does my spouse need? What is my spouse trying to communicate?”

Before the Mote…Remove the Beam

I commonly hear “I can’t go on. I’m being overwhelmed. I’ve got to find myself and be my own person, and find a person who will appreciate me, or not betray me.”

This is emotional fusion. This is the face of selfishness that stabs at the heart of a marriage.

In contrast, a differentiated person (who proactively looks to compromise with a resistant spouse) might think, “I’ve done all I can. My life is right with God, and I know that this is the course He would have me pursue. I love my spouse, and I want to be with them eternally. I will do all I can to help heal our marriage, but if they don’t want that, then I will respect their decision. Their decision doesn’t make me a bad person or a failure.”

These are two totally different places to be…with two totally different results.

Two Strong Individuals Who Choose to Stay Together

“Marriage is not easy; it is not simple…Since nearly all of us have experienced divorce among our close friends or relatives, we have come to realize that divorce is not a cure for difficulty, but is merely an escape, and a weak one…Two people coming from different backgrounds soon learn after the ceremony is performed that a stark reality must be faced…”[5]

Differentiation – the process of becoming a strong and independent individual while maintaining a close relationship with another person – can be one of the hardest, yet most rewarding challenges any married person will ever undertake.

Building such a marriage is hard. It will hit you at every weak spot you have. You must reach out for the strength to accomplish such a feat, because it cannot be done alone. It may mean letting go of some very comfortable habits, beliefs or traditions that are selfish and not conducive to the health of the marriage as a whole.

So Why Bother if It’s So Hard?

 It is worth pursuing because the benefits are amazing and eternal. Sex between two differentiated people can only be experienced if you are a person who is not afraid to be held, not afraid or ashamed to express yourself sexually with your spouse and not threatened by your spouse’s sexuality.

It is also when you realize that sex is so much more than just bodies pressing together, penis in vagina and reaching the ultimate orgasm. It is about communication, truly being one spiritually and emotionally, and finding pleasure in helping the other feel satisfied with their lives.  Sex between couples who have mastered differentiation also gets better as you grow older.

Gordon B. Hinkley said:

“Why all of these broken homes? What happens to marriages that begin with sincere love and a desire to be loyal and faithful and true one to another?

There is no simple answer. I acknowledge that. But it appears to me that there are some obvious reasons that account for a very high percentage of these problems. I say this out of experience in dealing with such tragedies. I find selfishness to be the root cause of most of it.

I am satisfied that a happy marriage is not so much a matter of romance as it is an anxious concern for the comfort and well-being of one’s companion.”[6]

How to Differentiate? One Word…
What must we do to allow differentiation to begin and selfishness to be removed? We must work to discover the selfishness in our own heart, and allow charity to develop. Charity is the manifestation of differentiation, and the celestial opposite of selfishness.

By being sealed in the temple by priesthood authority, we seal ourselves to the Lord as a third party in our marriage. He will initiate the process of differentiation by encouraging us to build our relationship with him, and in turn will help us build our relationship with our spouse and others.[7]

Charity is having a love for others (for our spouse) that is just as strong as the love Christ has for us.

“Pray with all the energy of heart…”[8]

By grasping onto the Lord for help and allowing Him to purify us, we overcome the selfishness in our hearts, and we can develop a love for our spouse that is not possible without his help.

We can gain confidence in the Lord, and in our identity as his spirit child. With that strength and confidence, we can face the challenges in our intimate lives and work to grow together as two independent individuals that function together interdependently.

Differentiation is the process by which we allow the institution of marriage (and the tool of sexual intimacy in marriage) to root out selfishness; to become more like Christ. If you allow it, marriage will show you all your weaknesses, selfish desires and shortcomings.

Repentance and forgiveness (of our spouse and ourselves) are also tools the Lord has given us to get selfishness out of our lives.

Start where you are. Allow your spouse or other loved ones or even priesthood leaders or professionals to help you recognize when you are fusing, being selfish, or giving into weaknesses. We can repent, we can be forgiven and we can pray for charity.

We can also communicate to our spouse and listen to our spouse to help each other learn what they need to feel loved, appreciated, respected, sexy and intimately satisfied. Never assume your spouse “should just know.” No one is born knowing how to be a good spouse or lover. It must be learned.

We can put their needs above our own, and we can not pass judgment because their personal differences are different from our own.

 “And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail – but charity is the pure love of Christ…

Wherefore…pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him…that we may be purified even as he is pure…”

In the end, who wants to be married to a stranger or someone we don’t like for eternity? If we are to build a happy and loving relationship that will last forever, each person has the task of replacing their own selfishness with charity.


[1] Dr. Homer Ellsworth, “I Have a Question”, Ensign, Aug. 1979

[2] Prather, Hugh and Gail, “Notes to Each Other”, as quoted by Schnarch, David. “Passionate Marriage” pg. 51.
[4] Kimball, Spencer W. “The Miracle of Forgiveness”, pg. 270-271
[5] Kimball, Spencer W. “Marriage and Divorce”, 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year, as quoted in the Eternal Marriage Student Manual, p. 170
[6] Hinckley, Gordon B. “What God Hath Joined Together”. Ensign, May 1991, pg. 71-74
[7] Ephesians 5: 22-33
[8] Moroni 7:48

7 comments:

Strong Man said...

Interesting analysis. I learned a few words, and this is quite interesting summary.

I agree that selfishness is cancerous to marriage. The problem with this simplistic view is that, as with many of our faults, often detecting our own, even when we're trying to, can be very difficult.

The challenge when it comes to sex is that husbands and wives may not communicate adequately and clearly enough to even understand when they are being selfish or not. Without that full understanding, the advice to be "unselfish" can even backfire.

I common complaint I hear is women who give sex once a week, when a husbands feels like he's about to perish after three days--he's continually frustrated. Or--a wife who thinks she's being more "righteous" by being so conservative in bed that it gets boring and uninteresting.

It can go the other way--a husband may think he's being unselfish by finding his own relief so he's not cranky and doesn't feel a need to put undue pressure on his wife. Oddly, in this case, the more unselfish thing for him might actually be to be more insistent and persistent in showing his wife how to meet his needs.

But--if he's told to be less "selfish," he might interpret it as to bother his wife less about sex when she gets tired of it so much. I've specifically heard this idea from a sexually frustrated LDS man that masturbation in that case is an unselfish, charitable act.

Yes--it can go the other way, depending on which partner has the higher desire, but the point about clear communication about sexual desires is still there.

Both men and women need to have empathy and trust in the other partner and recognize we do NOT understand the other gender. I don't understand labor pain, and my wife doesn't understand male sex drive. But, we can try to believe them.

I do appreciate your thoughtful reading and consideration of this issue, though.

Strong Man said...

I’ve just made a post that links to this one about selfishness in marriage. It mostly expands on my comments above.

Marriage and Selfishness

CoachSam said...

Dear Strong Man,

You bring a valid concern. Positive communication is vital in a marriage, and any course that reduces communication (i.e. I’ll leave my wife alone and not bother her about sex anymore) I won’t recommend.

A couple should not avoid all conflict. Conflict and opposition create growth. Overcoming selfishness is never easy or obvious. When it comes to sexual intimacy in marriage, the easy choice is almost always wrong.

We can’t always see where we’re being selfish. We will need the viewpoint of our spouse. We will sometimes need the viewpoint of others outside of our spouse, as I mentioned in the article. What we hear from these outside viewpoints may be hard to hear. We may not want to believe it.

Constant communication on sex is not only vital, but understanding between the sexes is also very possible, and the Lord can help build bridges between a married couple when they involve Him as well.

There are tests you can take as a couple to learn each other’s communications styles. You may learn that you have an action communication style (like to get in and have sex, don’t like to talk about it, just get to it) and she may have a Relationship communication style (likes to talk and emotionally connect through the whole process of sex). When a couple learns this, they can understand what the other needs to feel loved.

We may not share similar physiology or chemistry, but both genders feel strong emotion. Emotion is a very good starting place for comprehending the inner life of your spouse.

What makes the other feel loved? Feel lost and lonely? Feel happy and content? “Honey, when you do this, I feel so loved.” “When you ask me to do ___, I feel bad.” Talk about this together. Know your lover. If you want good sex, you’ve got to talk about sex with each other. No way around it.

I’ll talk more about how couple can communicate in a future article.

IAAMM said...

People have their own idea of what being selfish is. For example, my husband thinks that when I label my food in the icebox is being selfish. I think it's simply informing the family NOT to eat my leftovers, esp from the restaurant. I think it's selfish for my husband to want sex every day sometimes twice a day having no regard for how exhausted my body is. Hubby insists that his sexual appetite is a compliment to me. I should be grateful...

Anonymous said...

I feel like I am getting mixed messages in this area. First: "do not pressure your wife into sex, this will only drive her away." Makes sense, and sounds like a good ideal.
Second:Don't "leave my wife alone and not bother her about sex anymore". The problem is, the minute i bring up sex, she feels pressured. So if I follow advice nr. 2, I automatically fail nr. 1. I don't even have to say out loud that I want to talk about/ have sex.
She reads my body language, and goes into "I am a horrible wife, he doesn't really love me anymore, I should be making love to him, but I just don't want to!"
So I try to ignore advice nr.2 cause all it does is make her feel guilty, hate herself, and eventually leads to the always enjoyable guilt sex (Hazzah!). In turn, this leads to me hating myself for having pressured my wife into sex. Also, at this point, I assume that all sex is guilt sex, and cannot believe her when she says she wants me (which has probably only happened once anyway).
My conclusion, I just have to figure out how to shut off my sex drive, or at least mask it so well that she won't feel guilty about my needs going unmet. It's better that just one of us be miserable than both of us. Any idea on how to not project the pressure that one is feeling? I try, but haven't figured out how to stay as happy when it has been a looong time as when it has been a few hours.
Sorry for a messy post, and the ranting.

Anonymous said...

Once, after making love, and while my wife was enjoying the quiet time after just having an orgasm, I asked her point blank: Do you feel wonderful right now? "Yes" Then why wouldn't you want to repeat this feeling as often as possible? She got a deer in the headlight look and had to admit "I have no idea." IMO, when one or both parties don't want to have sexual intimacy, something is wrong. Whether it be medical or psychological or emotional or spiritual, something is up. I don't mean we all ought to be having sex with our wives twice a day or anything. But where there is a gulf between what one party thinks is "reasonable" versus what the other party thinks is reasonable, something needs to happen. Whether that means a wife getting a check up with her OBGYN, or the husband being told to kick it up a notch with the housekeeping duties, or whatever, the parties should not ignore the issue. I think that's what Coach Sam means by always communicating about sex. If your wife feels guilty and bad about not being "a good wife" then maybe she needs to talk to a therapist or counselor on what (presuming no underlying medical issues) is causing her to not want to be intimate. I think most LDS women's lack of desire is due to plain old "good girl" sydrome. Most won't admit to it, because like my wife, she would have to admit that sex does feel good to a female, too. In society and in our culture, expecially our LDS culture, women are really beat up with chastity. That's a great thing, but I think we often go too far and don't talk about the positve side of sexual relations.

Anonymous said...

Unless someone else's happiness means more to you than your own, you don't love them. Period.