"You're going to vacuum before they get here, right?" Leslie asked in an anxious tone as we pulled the car into the garage.
"I've got it under control," I murmured.
We each grabbed an armful of groceries and hurried into the kitchen. "I'll put away the groceries so you can get started on the vacuuming," Leslie said. The tension was rising because, in less than an hour, two couples would be at our doorstep expecting a dinner party.
"Don't forget to light the candles and turn on the music before they get here," Leslie hollered from the kitchen. I heard what she said but didn't reply as I walked into my study to look through some "urgent" mail.
Only a couple of minutes had passed, it seemed, when Leslie walked into my study and in exasperation asked: "What are you doing?"
"Reading my mail," I said, defensively and with the best look of confusion I could muster. She didn't buy my act. "Don't worry," I said, "I'll take care of the other stuff."
Leslie sighed and left the room. Five minutes later I heard the sound of the vacuum in the living room. "I'm almost done here and then I'll go in and help," I said to myself. Ten minutes later the vacuum stopped. I bolted from my chair and walked to the living room.
"I thought I was going to do this," I said to Leslie.
"So did I," she replied.
We've all weaseled our way out of our spouse's "to do" list at one time or another. After all, we've worked hard, we're tired, busy, preoccupied, maxed-out, whatever. There are a dozen reasons we use to justify one of the deadliest saboteurs of a healthy marriage: subtle selfishness. It lurks just beneath the surface whenever we are tired and there's a chore to be done or an errand to be run. That's when we pretend we don't notice the chore or we "forget" about the task, hoping our spouse will take over so we don't have to.
Leslie: Subtle selfishness seeps into our marriage in a myriad of ways. I'm the first to admit I sometimes selfishly hoard my husband's time, for example. I can whine and complain to Les about his busy schedule but never consider adjusting my own calendar for his benefit. Or, I might think nothing of spending extravagantly on a luncheon with one of my girlfriends and later snip at Les for indulging himself with another computer gadget. In big and small ways we all squirrel away money, energy, and time for our own advantage, never realizing that we are squandering countless opportunities for acts of kindness and generosity that would bring us to a deeper level of intimacy and connectedness with our partner.
The problem with focusing on yourself, no matter how subtle, is that it cuts the heart out of marriage. We can rationalize our selfish ways all we want, but we are missing the point of our partnership when we don't pitch in and help with the task at hand. Subtle selfishness is guaranteed to leave you feeling more like roommates than soul mates. What's worse, it brings conflict. "For those who are self-seeking," Scripture says, " . . . there will be wrath and anger" (Romans 2:8). Spats and tiffs are inevitable whenever we squander kindness and give in to self-absorption.
Les: Are we saying there is no place for making your own needs known, no place for private time or a kind of "sanctified" self-centeredness in marriage? Nope. If you live under the same roof long enough, your selfish side is guaranteed to emerge again and again. But one fact remains: Selfishness diminishes intimacy. To find the closeness you long for, self-focused actions have to be outweighed by generosity. The more frequently you look for opportunities to sacrifice self and serve your mate, the deeper your intimacy will grow.
It has taken both of us a while to learn the value of self-sacrifice. Little by little, however, I am slowly surrendering my miserly ways and discovering the immeasurable benefits that come from splurging on Leslie.
Leslie: I'm learning the same lessons as I adjust my self-centered desires and work to stop hoarding Les's time. Neither of us is a selfless saint. But we know we'll never achieve a satisfying, soul-to-soul connection—the kind that honors God and one another—without setting aside our self-focused desires and cultivating a generous spirit with one another.
Les Parrott, Ph.D., and Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., are codirectors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before it Starts (Zondervan).
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.