I read a recent article that started out by saying that “all marriages start off very selfishly.” He went on to say that people realize into the marriage that they can’t be so selfish and act accordingly. It’s not quite that simple.
Catholic teaching tells us that everyone born is selfish due to original sin that configured humanity to a condition of a self-serving nature. In Christ, through Baptism, original sin is removed, but its effects remain. Thus, we still have that strong tendency to serve ourselves as the priority in our lives. Thanks be to God, Baptism also configures us to Jesus Christ and we share His divine nature, making grace available to us.
Now let’s look at selfishness from a practical level as it applies to dating, love and marriage.
Yes, it’s true that marriages start of very selfishly. However, Christian marriage is a call to a selfless exchange of two people who become one in every way, and subsequently share that love with others.
This is a tall order. More than half of all marriages fall short of this ideal. I would argue there are many that maintain their marriages but suffer tremendous strain due to unwillingness to address the weaknesses where love fails or is diminished, causing an environment that is contrary to the marriage ideal.
It’s easy to accuse one or both persons of being too selfish. Is it selfish for a unhappy wife to want the affection of her husband when there is none? Is it selfish of an unhappy husband to expect the emotional support of his wife but not receive it?
There is a place for selfishness. Some selfishness is better identified as our “needs.” Our needs are important and have an effect on how we love another. If no needs are met as were expected, then love can die. Should it die? Probably not, if we only focus on loving as Jesus loved, which is a giving and self-donation without getting it in return. But only God can live this kind of love.
Human beings fall short of this kind of love. And it will always be this way. Marital love is a tall order because it’s unnatural for human beings to accomplish. It’s impossible because we all have needs, and we all have expectations as to how those needs should be met. It’s not for us to discount these needs. But it’s also not for us to excuse our behavior based on these needs.
The key is to accept that we are selfish people throughout our whole lives, and that success in marriage between two human beings is in embracing each other’s humanness as the probability, while mutually striving to become more like that unnatural divine love that is God. We need to accept that 1) we are selfish and need to work on becoming less selfish, 2) only God can love us perfectly, and 3) any human being is going to fail at times in true love. This kind of acceptance goes a long way in how we approach our own needs as well as the needs of the person we love.
There is still the matter of our valid needs that do have to be met, at least often enough to keep us afloat. No person can sustain providing love to another by meeting all their needs, while having no need of their own met. That’s not marital love. Marital love requires both persons participating in the game. When one is down and lacks the ability at the time to give, the other needs to be the stronger one, and vice versa.
In a word, successful marriage between two very non-perfect people is a sharing of love that embraces the other’s selfishness in their moments of selfish acts. When a selfish act is presented by one, it’s imperative that the other act selflessly in response in order to help rectify the situation and restore peace. If both act selfishly through actions and reactions, the course toward failed marriage is set.
But I have already said that we are all selfish, and it’s unnatural to be selfless. Exactly! Christian marriage is impossible without God. More to the point, two human beings cannot sustain love for a lifetime without divine influence.
In order find a genuine love that can make a marriage work, you have to be committed to working on your selfishness. It’s a ferocious passion not easily tamed. If unchecked, we shouldn’t be surprised when not only can we not meet another person’s needs, we can’t recognize a person capable of meeting our needs.
We work on our selfishness primarily by selfless acts. We have to practice it in order to improve. It’s called “character development.” A person of good character is not someone who is no longer selfish. Rather, it’s a person who recognizes that selfishness is behind the problems, and capable of seeing the good and positive qualities of another above any bad decisions, mistakes, or unattractive qualities.
Marriage is the cure to selfishness because it forces a person to get out of themselves and tend to their spouse and children. However, marriage only works to cure selfishness as both people are permitted to have setbacks because of selfish moments, and grow in selflessness together by being interested in and attentive to each other’s needs as they struggle and grow. That is love that cannot fail.