Why Saying “Marriage Isn’t For You” is Naive

tim chan —  November 5, 2013 — 25 Comments

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.

Why Saying "Marriage Isn't For You" is NaiveThis 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

  • thechelseagrin


  • Steve LaMotte

    Thanks for linking to my post and sharing your thoughts on the matter!

  • Jennie Miller

    Selflessness is why I am not marriage material.

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  • Jimmy

    When two people are outpouring in love, it’s much easier to receive love. It’s doing what’s best for the marriage, not necessarily the other person.

  • Elise

    I completely agree with what you are saying. When I read the original article something didn’t settle well. I got what he was saying, but I felt it was missing something, or that the truth wasn’t quite complete.

    Also, I just want to commend you for honoring him and his thoughts even though you didn’t have to.

  • Daniel @ Urban Departures

    Hello, I came across your blog via a facebook link and I enjoyed your post. While I don’t think the point of Seth’s blog post was about making marriage all about the other person’s happiness (although I could be wrong), I do agree that it can be misleading, especially for people not ready for marriage.

    I also agree with your points. In my own marriage, I’ve learned that it’s not about making my spouse happy and putting my focus on him (and vice versa). We always fall short of each other’s expectations and when we rely on each other to be the source of happiness, we end up being disappointed. I find that when we honour God first, we honour each other and are able to give and love more.

    P.S. It says Daniel posted this comment, but it’s actually the female half (Emily) at Urban Departures (we have a joint twitter account under his name).

  • Excellently said Time and Olive. Yes!

    Loving the beloved does not have to mean we don’t care for ourselves. This point is crucial to clarify, as you point out your season of depression.

    Receiving love and being willing to be vulnerable and known is massive. Otherwise, what is the lover loving? Perhaps only a facade of a person.

    I love the quote you pulled from Keller’s book. Right on the point of what is it to live in love.

    The truth is, a marriage cannot be what is meant to be, if only one party chooses is engaged in becoming one. It really has to be both parties actively learning oneness.

    I am not sure that Seth’s post is wrong, per se, but I agree with you that it misses the depths and complexities of relationship. Given the popularity of his post, I am glad that you have offered a “here’s a little bit more” to think about. Bravo! Well done!

    • Seth wasn’t attempting to remotely define the “depths and complexities of relationship”.

      I do not see why anyone is making the assumption that he was.

      • RoehClay

        Kristine , i think what happened is that people were not comprehending the selflessness concept in it’s more complete form .
        when you live for your spouse , you live to allow your spouse to live for you and thus it becomes a unity of spirit and soul and desire , and not just one person doing for the other alone.

        For many that is a concept not seen in marriage today as it is often “oh i gave everything up and they did nothing” that rears it’s ugly head . that is selflessness without any foundation

        for michele and i
        It is i will do anything for her to make her happy even if i am momentarily ill at ease . and she would and has done the same .
        love involves compromise but removes “dormat syndrome”

  • Zachary J Davis

    I agree, and disagree with what you say. Though I am not married quite yet, there are some things that are true with what both of you are saying. In other words, both of you make a relationship to be a good thing, and both of you mention that there are often disagreements within a relationship. Yes, it is good to give, and to give selflessly is the only way that can be true. This means giving from the heart, and not from the mind. Receiving with humility is also a very good thing. Reminding yourself that you are not always the stronger one is important.

    I would like to make one thing clear though. It is better to give than to receive. Not matter what, as long as both are fulfilling that statement, both of your arguments are true.

    Also, people are different. They have different personalities, and different perspective on how to live life. A marriage is about sharing in that, and more importantly sharing in each others faith (this means more than just faith in each other). That said, every relationship will have different quirks, and each person will in that relationship will figure out how to live their marriage with those quirks in play. How your relationship manages is how you both manage it best–the same goes for Seth and his wife.

    Readers, keep an open mind about both of these marriages, and take from them what helps you in your relationships. One man is neither correct, nor incorrect, so think carefully before you solidify these perspectives in your own marriages.

  • herber_t

    Thank you for completely ignoring the circumstances.

  • Conrad

    Thank You, Tim! I liked Seth’s article, but your response has shown me that my gut disagreement with the incompleteness of his writing needs to be acknowledged.

    I still haven’t been married, but dated long enough to know that any serious couple should be about giving as well as receiving. I agree, it’s not either/or…maybe it’s like Love your Neighbor AS you Love yourself…the Church so often stresses sacrifice and love and giving, but completely overshadows the inherent wisdom of loving ourselves, which in this case would be graciously and, as you put, humbly accepting our partner’s love for us….it could be “humbling” or maybe “enjoying”…as Christ did when offered the luxurious bottle of perfume poured on His feet…according to His disciples He was being careless or selfish…but He was welcoming the love being given to Him.

  • James R Miller

    Your title isn’t as catchy…

  • guest25

    If marriage is so easy and so wonderful… why dig so deep on it to explain it? like a person needs an instruction manual? marriage sucks. I’ve been there, and grew tired. It’s much nicer recieving love from a multitude of men instead of one boring, tired, “let’s work on US” relationship. Bah! never again.

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  • Zack Weisman

    Marriage isn’t for me because I’ve given up on finding someone to marry. Just going to be rich and have ski vacations in Switzerland with my homies.

  • Storm McCreery-Rye

    Openly loving someone else opens you up completely, and you can’t help but be your true self. That’s me anyway. I suffer from depression as well, and I found that when I loved someone but did not receive love that wasn’t complete love. The heart is either completely open or it’s not. If love isn’t being received, it’s not fully open and you’re not loving completely, are you?! Complete love is being surrounded by love like a big swirling mass, it’s coming and going, and no one keeps score. That’s love. Not giving or receiving, your heart isn’t a shipping lane!

  • Anna Gabrielle Bradley

    I feel people are incapable of obtaining true love because the world is infected with the disease known as being selfish. It’s important to give, indulging in your partners love is equally important. But most people have a harder giving. I have terrible time receiving love. Thank you for this post.

  • Oh FFS. *eyeroll*

    You are completely overthinking his blog post.

    The guy wasn’t trying to define or explain every nuance of what marriage is.

    And literally everything can be twisted to be about selfishness. Hell, there was a Friends episode about it! Phoebe donating money, but it made her feel good to do it.

    So it’s a stupid circular argument.

    Just let the guy live his marriage.

  • Donald Cox

    This is not a fair criticism at all. Of course marriage is about “us,” and if both partners in the marriage do what Smith counsels it will be about “us.” Your response sounds rather self-centered itself.

  • Avril Lewis

    I think we all need to realize that because we differ we have different experiences in life. Both authors are correct in their perspective. One needed to learn to love the spouse more and the other needed to learn to receive love. This does not mean one or the other is the rule. Both are some of the pieces of a “puzzle” or a bigger picture, and God give these pieces to us in a manner that we need to work together to get the bigger picture. No one person’s “story” or understanding is complete representation of the truth, if you know what I mean.

  • kelly pettersen

    I just read his blog and it really annoyed me. Any philosophy you practice in marriage is only successful if you are both on board with it. There has to be a BALANCE always between your happiness and theirs. How’s a person supposed to make you happy if you can’t express your needs cuz that would classify you as selfish?! Lol

  • Craig

    This is dribble. Your trying to steal someone else’s limelight.

  • RoehClay

    the point i gained from both the initial blog post as well as the above post is simple far simpler than most might think. seth is quite correct in his comprehension first . it is about the other person’s happiness . BUT Tim is correct in that if you do not understand the concept of shared happiness you can turn selflessness into selfishness .
    i believe what Seth’s real understanding is that both husband and wife need to look at the happiness of their partner before their own and know when to sit back and allow the spouse to bring them Joy . My Fiance and i look at it this way .

    Michele and I do everything in our power to make each other happy. we do not cease having our own critical needs but rather than giving them up for the other we allow each other to meet the needs and thus increase the strength of the union .
    Indeed it is a give and take .with each giving 100% of their love to the other and receiving an amazing 110% of the benefit by the mutual understandings developed

    No marriage is perfect but if you focus on meeting the needs of your spouse and they yours then you both gain a solid unity and if you place G-d at the center of it all .
    well ask me in 10 years just how well that works Michele and i will happily answer you

    Love , Peace and hope to all new couples to build a solid relationship based on love , compassion, and faith , along with selflessness and a welcoming of the spouses same traits…
    be blessed my friends
    M.Min. Clayton Young and
    Michele Dawn Lefler
    Congregational leaders Kehilah Kol Shalom ( a Messianic Community )