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The Myth of Self-Love

Why you can’t love yourself into a better marriage

Have you ever thought about what it must have been like to be married a hundred years ago? There were hardly any books on how to have a better marriage and no marriage getaway weekends to rekindle your love. How did our great-grandparents manage?

It’s All About Me . . . Right?

While I’m a fan of resources that help us grow in relationships, I’m also convinced that many of the books and seminars that aim to help can actually end up harming. Why? Because the vast majority of books and relationship seminars focus on the big ME—what I want, what I need, what I deserve, and how I can fix my marriage.

“Well, you can’t really love others until you learn to love yourself.” I’ve heard this common sentiment hundreds of times in songs, poems, on bumper stickers, and even in the church. Some Christians cite Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) as a biblical mandate that we should focus on loving ourselves.

I believe this modern-day rendition of Jesus’ teaching has done more to destroy marriage than Internet porn.

Instead of actually helping us in relationships, I believe this modern-day rendition of Jesus’ teaching has done more to destroy marriage than Internet porn. Yes, that’s a strong statement. But consider this: the use of porn and other destructive habits in marriage are fed by a humanistic belief that says, "I will only be fulfilled when I put my own needs first." A focus on loving yourself never prepares you to love someone else. In fact, it actually sabotages your capacity to love.

Self-Focused or Selfless?

The truth about love is closer to these teachings from Jesus:

  • “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
  • “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it” (Luke 17:33, NIV).

Throughout the Bible we are reminded that selfishness, even under the pretense of “finding myself,” is a lonely road to nowhere. I’ve met many women desperate to fix their marriages through the pursuit of self-love and self-actualization. They don’t have to look too far to find a relationship “expert” who will encourage selfishness as the way to healthy intimacy.

Self-love has many different expressions. While some women are obsessed with their looks and achievements, others are self-absorbed in their insecurity. In both of these situations, our hearts are preoccupied with self, unable to extend unselfish love or live a life to the glory of God alone.

Both secular and Christian research suggests that one of the most important traits in a good marriage is humility—actually the opposite of being consumed with yourself. A good husband or wife demonstrates empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and a desire to grow and learn.

That Luring Lie

If qualities like humility and kindness make for stronger relationships, why do we gravitate toward the advice that tells us to “look out for number one”? Why do marriage counselors encourage people to abandon a marriage if it doesn’t help them “become the best you”?

A focus on loving yourself never prepares you to love someone else. In fact, it actually sabotages your capacity to love.

We have always been susceptible to Satan’s appeal to our prideful and sinful nature. In the Garden of Eden, he convinced Eve that her way was better than God’s. He fed her pride and her desire to be the god of her own world. His lies haven’t changed that much, yet we still sink our teeth into the apple, exchanging the truth for a self-affirming lie.

All-Sufficient Love

I understand that many women struggle with insecurity; you may be one of them. You may need encouragement to find your voice, to set healthy boundaries, or to ask others to treat you with respect. However, true confidence never comes from believing self-affirmations.

The apostle Paul wrote a prayer for the Christians in Ephesus that expresses where true confidence and the ability to love comes from. I believe his prayer applies as much to us today as it did to these Christians who lived 2,000 years ago:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell richly in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14–19, NIV)

Only when we build on a foundation of God’s deep love and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives can we grow in love and authentic intimacy. Self-love will never equip you to love another person. Instead, God asks you to trust in his great love for you. Our problem is not that we love ourselves too little, but that we don’t trust God’s love to be sufficient.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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