Loving Yourself Kills Your Marriage

We tend to think love is easy. We speak of “falling in love” as if all we need to do is find a hole in the ground and let gravity do the rest. 

Leaving a partner, dissolving a marriage, or breaking up a family are often justified when that force moves in the opposite direction. “We fell out of love.”

This is not love.

This is not love.

Love is not an irresistible force or a ditch which people unwittingly fall into or out of. It's not a mere emotion that takes over our faculties and robs us of agency. Love is a choice that, if it’s going to last, has to be chosen over and over and over again.

Because the only person in the world I love automatically is myself.

One reason marriage is hard is that the devil hates it. Another is this: Marriage is hard because I love myself more than my spouse.

I Love Myself More Than My Spouse

I entered this world loving myself, often to the exclusion of others (Ps. 51:5). When faced with the choice to love myself or others, my default will be to love myself. I know how to love myself better than anything else in the world. I am a self-love expert.

And if you honestly reflect a moment, you’ll admit you are too.

I could get up and do the dishes right now. Or I could sit here and watch TV. I know doing the dishes would really help my wife out. But I worked hard all day and I’m really tired. I deserve to rest and veg out for a bit….

I know he’s been discouraged by all the politics at work. He could use some encouragement. But when was the last time he encouraged me? Said something kind? When was the last time we did anything fun? I think I’ll just keep to myself.…

It’s her birthday. Crap! Didn’t Valentine’s Day just happen? And our anniversary? And now I need to think of another gift? She never likes anything I get for her anyway. It’s exhausting to try and come up with an idea only to get shot down. I’ll just have the kids get her something….

How could he say that to me?
How could she treat me this way?
With all I do for him?
After all I’ve been through for her?
He doesn’t have the right…
She doesn’t have the right…

By no means am I always 100% to blame for the problems that arise in my marriage. It takes two to tango.

Takes two to tango.

But when conflict arises, when loving my spouse becomes difficult, I am faced with a choice. I can love myself. Or I can love my spouse.

When I choose to love myself instead of my spouse, I am choosing to hurt my marriage. Loving myself kills my marriage.

Loving Myself Kills My Marriage

James 4 isn’t specifically about marriage, but it contains profound insight into what happens in our hearts when our self-love is crossed:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1-2)

I usually think the problems in my marriage arise either from my circumstances or my spouse. But the truth is I am always faced with a choice. A choice to love myself or my spouse. And when I choose to love myself, my “passions are at war within” me. When I believe the problem is outside me, I lash out (“murder” refers here not to violence, but to Jesus’s equation of hatred with murder in Matthew 5). When I don’t get what I want, I “fight and quarrel.” When I refuse to love my spouse more than myself, conflict inevitably arises.

What it looks like when my self-love is crossed.

What it looks like when my self-love is crossed.

"He Gives More Grace"

The objection rises up in our minds: “What if my spouse takes advantage of me? What if I give and give and give and s/he just takes and takes and takes?”

Good question.

Let me ask you one: Who makes your marriage work? If loving yourself kills your marriage (and it does), but you’re afraid no one will be there to look out for you, what do you do? Who do you turn to protect you from your (potentially-selfish-because-definitely-sinful) spouse?

James gives the answer. It’s Jesus:

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.…” Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:6, 10)

Grace is love I don’t deserve. If my spouse isn’t giving me the love I need, James reminds me where I can go: to Jesus! “He gives more grace!” If I humble myself before Him, ask for His help, tell Him my need, “he will exalt” me. He will lift me up.

Trying to do marriage by loving myself is like trying to lift myself up by my own hair. It doesn’t work. I can’t lift myself up. But Jesus can. Not only can He; He promises to. Go to Him in humility with your need and see if He doesn’t keep that promise.

Devil Hates Marriage

Marriage is hard. 

Marriage in the Bay Area seems to be particularly hard. We live in a place where there are precious few models of healthy, happy, self-giving marriage. As a result, many adults in our area are forgoing marriage altogether: Only 41% of adults in Oakland and 54% of adults in Alameda (our family-friendly Island City) are married. Only 51% of adults in California were married in 2016, compared with 74% in 1960. The marriages that do last—and a majority don’t—often devolve into mere contractual arrangements, rather than the deep intimacy that drew the couple to get married in the first place.  

Over the years, I’ve counseled dozens of Bay Area couples. All of them were struggling in their marriages, from minor disagreements to major infidelity. I have pleaded with couples, tears in my eyes, begging them to forgive, to give their hurt to Christ, to let Him heal their wounds, to seek reconciliation with one another. Those pleas have not always been successful. 

When I reflect on the obstacles to healthy, thriving marriages in our context—from financial pressures to lack of support network, from the demands of career to sexual temptation—one phrase best summarizes them all:

The devil hates marriage!

(I imagine this line as a song, to the tune of “Papa Loves Mambo.” Just pretend Perry Como is singing “devil hates marriage” instead.)

Why is it so hard to apologize to your wife when what you’ve said is genuinely hurtful? Devil hates marriage. 

Why is it so tempting to focus on what your husband has done wrong and using that to justify your stubbornness? Devil hates marriage.

Why is it so much easier to spend your energy on your children than on your relationship with your spouse? Devil hates marriage.

Why are you and your husband or wife stuck in a pattern of miscommunication, arguing, indifference and hopelessness? Devil hates marriage. 

Marriage: Glory-Mirror

The devil hates marriage because he hates what God wants to do with it. God wants to shine His glory through your marriage. He wants the love, the self-sacrifice, the deep knowledge of another, and the mutual submission to be like a mirror that reflects the glory of our self-giving Savior. 

God made your marriage to reflect His glory.

God made your marriage to reflect His glory.

When speaking of the union of man and woman as one person, one flesh, St. Paul wrote, "This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church" (Eph. 5:32). Marriage is a tangible metaphor of the grace of God in Jesus Christ

We get stuck in patterns of self-focus, mistrust, autopilot, and despair in our marriages because Satan wants to cloud over God’s glory in your marriage with lies. Jesus said of him, "there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He wants to obscure God’s glory in your marriage with lies like:

  • Marriage is too hard.
  • Your situation is really unfair.
  • You should just settle for the way things are.
  • You’ve given all anyone can reasonably expect of you.

Those lies focus your attention on yourself. Not God. Not your spouse. And when those lies take hold, the devil’s hatred for marriage wins. 

God wants your marriage to be a school of love.

In opposition to the slavery of sin and Satan’s lies, Jesus welcomes us into His freedom: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin…. [But] if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36). The devil hates marriage. But Jesus loves marriage. And if you’re married, He wants you to enjoy the freedom, intimacy, joy and affection that come in a healthy, God-reflecting marriage. And He wants your marriage to accomplish its mission to display the glory of our self-giving God. 

We need to be honest: marriage in the Bay is hard. It’s hard because the devil hates it. It’s hard because reflecting God’s glory isn’t easy. But God wants your marriage to be a school of love, in which you learn how to love others as your love yourself. God gave you your spouse to teach you to love like Him.