Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Marriages Flourish With Sacrifice And Devotion

August 8, 2005

How much time and attention do husbands and wives devote to meeting their own needs versus meeting the needs of the other? How do these five different attitudes describe your commitment to your or your spouse’s well being: selfishness, convenience, fairness, sacrifice, and devotion?

1. Selfishness. When a relationship is based on selfishness, satisfying your own needs becomes a top priority. The needs of your spouse are seldom taken into account. A relationship based on selfishness is about taking and getting rather than giving.

Selfishness represents a trust in power to get your own needs met. A spouse acting in a selfish way doesn’t trust their partner’s willingness to give what he or she wants. However, you can’t really use power to make people love you or want you to have what you want. It doesn’t work. Behind the illusion of control in selfishness is helplessness.

2. Convenience. Relationships based on convenience occur when one partner is allowed limited access to the other's time and attention. The needs of the partner are sometimes considered, but only when it is convenient to do so. This is often expressed as, "I’ll be good to you and do things for you as long as it doesn't inconvenience me."

Partners are willing to be helpful but are reluctant to sacrifice. The subtle message, "You are not a top priority," is sent. A spouse learns that he or she is not that important to their partner, at least not as important as he or she wants to be. After time, a spouse who feels like a second fiddle may seek importance in other places, such as in a job, children or friendships.

3. Fairness. A committed relationship is based on a willingness of each spouse to share what they have with each other through bargaining, compromise and negotiations. There is a willingness to solve problems.

There is trust in the basic fairness and equality of the relationship. Each partner is vulnerable to the other, trusting that his or her partner will not exploit a willingness to give or inconvenience oneself for the other in the process of finding a solution.

Reciprocity is the basic minimum for a good relationship. There is balance in the relationship. Your needs don't take precedence over your partner's needs. The willingness to give is tempered by reality. Discussion, negotiations and give-and-take are important skills in insuring that both partners needs are being met.

In the short term, one partner’s needs may take precedence but over time both partners needs will be met in a balanced and fair way. There might be tradeoffs but no score keeping. The logistics of life require a good relationship to be good at problem-solving and not just sacrifice.

4. Sacrifice. This kind of relationship is based on a willingness to give without regard to equality or expectation of return. Sacrifice has caring as a foundation. Each partner experiences pleasure in meeting the needs of their partner. Your own needs don't matter as much as pleasing your partner or putting your partner’s happiness first.

This willingness to respond to a partner’s needs may also be described with words like love, service, and charity. To give in this way involves a commitment of time, attention, and resources to meet another’s needs even when it is inconvenient. Your needs are willingly set aside to meet the needs of a loved one. By reaching outside of yourself through acts of love, you affirm the value of the one you love.

5. Devotion. When a relationship is based on devotion, each partner actively seeks opportunities to serve the other. Instead of waiting to be asked, each spouse tries to anticipate the needs of the other and to meet those needs before they arise.

This is an active, vigilant monitoring of their partner's happiness. It is similar to the way a host monitors and anticipates a guest's needs before they ask. An example would be, "I thought you might need some time alone, so I took the children to the park."

In a marriage, devotion means knowing your partner well and being mindful about him or her - giving yourself over wholly and purposefully. It requires paying attention, anticipating needs, and putting a priority on the relationship.

Both love and devotion are good. Acts of love and sacrifice in response to a request are good. A willing heart is a loving heart. Marriage partners can learn to show more devotion by being more attentive, anticipating needs and remembering past conversations and requests. It doesn’t matter that much whether the loving action is a result of a request or anticipating a need - it shouldn’t be a source of conflict. If you operate on this side of the continuum, it is all good.

Increasing the amount of giving in the form of sacrifice or devotion increases intimacy. This takes a change of heart from "getting" to "giving" and in centering one’s attention on the other’s happiness.

Desire to change. Good relationships circle around fairness, sacrifice, and devotion with occasional acts of thoughtlessness based on convenience or selfishness. Bad relationships circle around fairness, convenience or selfishness with occasional acts of sacrifice and even fewer acts of devotion.

Couples in poor relationships need to make a courageous decision to become vulnerable to the love and good will of their partners for getting their needs met. The miracle is that we get love by giving love.

This continuum of five attitudes is adapted from Bernard Poduska’s work on resource allocation within marriage. He is an associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University.