“The heart is deceitful above all things,”the prophet tells us (Jer. 17:9). As fallen humanity we are able to rationalize and moralize all kinds of sin. We do it subtly, convincing ourselves that we are doing good when in fact we are really acting on our most selfish impulses. This is particularly true in relationships, and most notably in marital relationships. We find ways to emphasize our own wants and demands by couching them in the language of love for one another. We can often treat, then, the principle of “love your spouse as yourself,” in a sort of twisted way: love myself by loving my spouse. It’s a subtle manipulative move that makes expressions of love ultimately self-focused. We must evaluate your motives in the demonstration of love to one another.
It is too easy and tempting to conclude that because our actions on the surface, or our words in conversation, appear to be selfless that they are in fact selfless. Spouses have learned all sorts of ways, however, to manipulate one another and to use love as a means of ultimately getting what we want. It is most commonly seen in the practice of “giving to get.” The phrase points to the practice of making “sacrifices,” or giving gifts, deferring to others, in one scenario in order that they will do the same at another time. It is usually calculated, and anticipates a future desire that an individual wants met. So, a husband may relinquish his desire to watch a football game and go to a birthday party with his wife, but in the back of his mind he knows that he is raking up “brownie points” for next weekend’s all-day golf-outing that he has yet to tell his wife about. He is making a “sacrifice” in order to secure a future desire. It looks like love, but it is actually manipulation.
This practice is often further justified by the idea that men and women have specific, different, needs that must be met within marriage. So, we give to one another’s needs knowing that as I give I will also get back. If I give you respect, then you will give me love. If I give you time, then you will give me pleasure. The concept has some things right and some things terribly wrong. On the one hand we do have relational desires that we seek to have fulfilled within relationships. We want to spend time with one another, be respected, receive love, be heard and understood, enjoy sexual intimacy, etc. Relationships work best as we seek to meet one another’s needs. But the concept breaks down by asserting that if we do X then we will receive Y. If I “love” my wife, then she will “respect” me. The problem with this approach is that it simply isn’t true. We can’t cause one another to react in certain ways, and this approach to marriage often sets us up to be disappointed and tempted to become bitter. If, after all, my wife doesn’t give me respect when I love her then my tendency is simply to stop giving love. There is nothing Biblical about that dynamic. Jesus taught the opposite in Matthew 5; he said:
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt. 5:46-47)
Commenting on this passage, counselor Winston Smith writes:
In other words, being nice to those who are nice to you is ordinary; there’s no particular virtue in it. It’s self-interest cloaked in kindness. (Marriage Matters, 47)
It’s this concept of “self-interest cloaked in kindness” that is so destructive to marriages. It is destructive particularly for two reasons: (1) It won’t endure; (2) It betrays spouses.
If we love our spouse as a means to really loving ourselves we will inevitably find that we can’t endure disappointment. We may start out strong enough, but in the long run the more disappointed we become the less we will commit to giving and the more we will demand that we get. If a wife makes her ultimate goal to receive a certain expression of love from her husband, and yet no matter how much she shows him respect he still remains distant and cold, then eventually she will stop showing him respect. The “pay-off” never comes and therefore the work required of showing respect won’t be worth it to her. “Giving-to-get” can’t endure when one spouse refuses to play the game. Self-interest will eventually, then, ditch the cloak and go straight to frontal assault.
On the other hand, even when it does “work,” so to speak, and we are demonstrating love and getting what we want the cloak will eventually disintegrate. Our spouses are not stupid, they will eventually see through the “kindness” and notice the self-interest at the heart of our behavior. They will start to see the ugliness behind our “kindness,” and they will resent it. They will feel manipulated and frustrated, and yet be unable to point to the exact problem, because, after all, “he does nice things for me.” This is not love, and though our spouses may not be able to put their finger on the problem, they will know it. The marriage will increasingly become fragile and distrust builds between the partners.
Loving your spouse as yourself (Eph. 5:28; Mark 12:31) does not mean love myself. We all naturally love ourselves and seek our own self-interest. Loving your spouse as yourself, means to seek their interests and good with the same tenacity, forethought, and passion that we naturally seek our own interests. It means to sacrifice our wants because we care more about theirs (Phil. 2:4). It means to give up what we want, to die to self, and to focus our energies on what is truly best, truly good, and truly desirable to our spouses (Eph. 5:25). This is, of course, the way of Jesus who left heaven, humbled himself, and died on the cross for us (Phil. 2:5-8). He is our example of selfless and sacrificial love. Love isn’t about giving to get, it’s simply about giving.
If you love your spouse in order to love yourself, then you don’t really love your spouse, and eventually such an approach will destroy your marriage. Instead, love as you have been loved in Christ (John 13:34). This is true love. The heart is deceitful, so evaluate your expressions of love and the motivations the drive them. As you do, make changes to better reflect Christ in your marriage.