Three days ago, Seth Adam Smith published a blog post entitled “Marriage Isn’t For You” that went viral (Seth says it has over 4 million views so far). His cleverly titled post explained that marriage isn’t about your own happiness, but about your spouse’s happiness.
This is my response to his post. I disagree with what he writes. His sweeping statements oversimplify the complexity of marriage. I’m writing this (with help from my wife) mostly for all the single people who find some part of Seth’s blog post resonates with them, because I think his post falls short in explaining what marriage is about (and also because I feel like the current responses written to this viral article are inadequate – e.g. this, this, this, this, and this).
Focusing Solely on the Other is still Self-Centered
Seth writes, “A true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love – their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams.” As much as Seth’s intentions might be to counter his previous self-centeredness in marriage by boldly proclaiming that marriage is purely for the other person, in doing exactly that, he makes the same mistake of remaining self-centered.
It feels heroic to claim that marriage is about your spouse’s happiness. But doing so makes it about what you can give. In the end, if marriage is about your ability to make your spouse happy, the marriage is still about you. There is a certain level of pride in thinking that you can make marriage completely about your spouse. Another person’s happiness is also not something you can control. (Not to mention, it’s not realistic to expect that we can give limitlessly without needing anything ourselves.)
Marriage is about Receiving as much as it is about Giving
Seth’s blog post somewhat resonates with me because when I first got married, the hardest thing for me was to stop thinking about my own happiness all the time. It was a difficult transition from being single and thinking only of myself, to being married and attempting to think about my wife’s needs as well.
But after a few years of practice, I discovered that thinking about my wife’s needs wasn’t the hardest part. It was more difficult for me to receive love than to give it.
Giving meant that I could be the provider, something I could take pride in. But receiving required humility; acknowledging that I was in need of what my spouse could provide. As a man, this was much harder to do, because I’d rather be self-sufficient.
Early in our marriage I went through a season of depression. At first I tried to hide it from my wife because I didn’t want to burden her with it. I also didn’t want to accept that I needed help. It was terribly difficult for me to accept her love for me, especially in a time when I felt ashamed and weak.
Through that experience, I realized that marriage is as much about receiving as it is about giving. To receive, I had to open myself up to my wife and show my weakness, a side of me I had previously hidden from her. This allowed her to see a truer, more authentic picture of who I was. It also allowed me to realize that Olive still loved me, even in my weakness.
If I was only giving, I would never have to show my weakness. I would never know if Olive simply loved the “provider” in me, or the whole of me. Marriage is being known and being loved. Solely giving doesn’t allow that to happen.
Tim Keller says in his brilliant book, The Meaning of Marriage, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything.”
Marriage is not about You and Me, It’s About Us
What I find most troubling is that Seth never used the term “us” to describe himself and his wife. The focus was either on himself or on his wife.
But marriage is not about the individual, it is about the couple. When two people get married they unite and become one. When you get married, slowly the “you” and “I” language gets replaced with “we” and “us.” It’s no longer about my happiness or your happiness, marriage is about our happiness. (Being people of Christian faith, my wife and I believe marriage is about much more than our happiness, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
During the months when I was depressed, my wife had to look out for both of our well-being. This meant that she was not solely occupied with meeting my needs. She had to take care of herself too because she knew that was the only way we would make it through together. It wasn’t about meeting her needs versus mine. In caring for herself, she was caring for us.
In the end, I think Seth’s blog post title is really only missing one word: just. Marriage isn’t just for you. It’s not just for your spouse either. It’s for the two of you, together.
PS – While I disagree with Seth’s blog post, I admire his courage in writing about his marriage, what he felt he had done wrong, and what he had learned. Selflessness is a major theme in marriage and I am glad that he has written about this. I do not want to discount what he has learned from his own experiences. And in sharing his story, he has helped many people and sparked many good conversations. My wife and I encourage him and his wife Kim to continue thinking through and learning from their experiences in marriage, and asking the question, “What is marriage really about?” I look forward to reading more of Seth’s thoughts in the future.
photo credit: freeloosedirt