Maintaining harmony in marriage has been difficult since Adam and Eve. Two people trying to go their own selfish, separate ways can never hope to experience the oneness of marriage as God intended. The prophet Isaiah portrayed the problem accurately more than 2,500 years ago when he described basic human selfishness like this: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).

Selfishness is possibly the most dangerous threat to oneness in marriage. It affects how we talk to each other, how we divide responsibilities in the home, how we resolve conflicts, and even how we spend our time.  Men stubbornly ignore the needs of their wives. They prefer fishing or hunting or playing golf, or even spending an extra hour or two at the office. I once met a pastor who frequented Christian bookstores and libraries for the sole purpose of avoiding his wife. And I have counseled women who spend countless hours shopping, not for their families but to avoid responsibilities at home and to gratify themselves. 

Just how do we avoid reaping the bitter fruit of selfishness in a marriage?

Surrender Is the Key

In our first years of marriage I (Dennis) was more than a bit selfish. After being single for 25 years, I was skilled at looking out for my own needs. But when I took Barbara as my wife, I assumed a new responsibility — loving Barbara as Christ loved the church. That demanded death to self, but my “self” didn’t want to “die.”

After we were married, it didn’t take Barbara long to learn about my genuine 14-carat tendency to be lazy, which was closely linked to my enjoyment of television. I thought Saturdays were mine to thoroughly enjoy as I pleased. Following the pattern I’d learned from my dad, I would get soft drinks and chips, crawl into my chair, and settle down to watch hours of baseball, football, tennis, golf — it didn’t matter what the sport. I just wanted to become a giant amoeba, a blob of molecules with flat brain waves mesmerized by hours of boob tube gazing. What was wrong with this picture? Barbara needed my help in doing tasks and running errands.

Marriage offers a tremendous opportunity to do something about selfishness. Someone may say, “There is no hope; I can’t get him to change,” or “What’s the use? She’ll never be any different.” Barbara and I know there is hope because we learned to apply a plan that is bigger than human self-centeredness. Through principles taught in Scripture, we have learned how to set aside our selfish interests for the good of each other as well as for the profit of our marriage.

Willing to Be Last

We have seen the Bible’s plan work in our lives, and we’re still seeing it work daily. Barbara hasn’t changed me nor have I changed her. God has changed both of us.

The answer for ending selfishness is found in Jesus and His teachings. He showed us that instead of wanting to be first, we must be willing to be last. Instead of wanting to be served, we must serve. Instead of trying to save our lives, we must lose them. We must love our neighbors (our spouses) as much as we love ourselves. In short, if we want to defeat selfishness, we must give up, give in, and give all.

If we live our lives for ourselves, thinking only of our selfish desires and interests, in the end God gives us exactly what we want: ourselves.

Marriage provides the opportunity to live life for someone else and to avoid this terrible conclusion: “All I’ve got is me. I can’t depend on anyone else.”

The Parable of the Porcupines

What we need the most is to be in a relationship with another person who accepts us as we are and doesn't reject us. But the closer I get to Barbara, the more she becomes aware of who I really am and the possibility of her rejecting me grows even greater.

A well-known story catches the pain of the human dilemma when it compares relating to each other to the predicament of two porcupines freezing in the winter cold. Shivering in the frigid air, the two porcupines move closer together to share body heat and warmth. But then their sharp spines and quills prick each other painfully and they move apart, victims once more of the bitter cold around them. Soon they feel they must come together once more, or freeze to death. But their quills cause too much pain and they have to part again. 

Many marriages are just like that. We can't stand the cold (isolation from each other) but we desperately need to learn how to live with the sharp barbs and quills that are part of coming together in oneness.

The key to dealing with the barbs and quills that come from selfishness is learning you have to depend on someone else because you have no other choice. To experience oneness, you must give up your will for the will of another. But to do this, you must first give up your will to Christ, and then you will find it possible to give up your will for that of your spouse.

Unless you can give up your will and learn to depend on each other, selfishness will disable or destroy your marriage as you face the difficulties that are bound to occur.

Adapted by permission from Starting Your Marriage Right, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers, © 2000. 

This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2010 issue of Marriage Memo, a weekly e-newsletter.  To subscribe free to Marriage Memo and other FamilyLife e-newsletters, click here.  For the Marriage Memo archives, click here.