“Be self-giving, not self-seeking” — but what if that’s the wrong marriage advice

Close up picture of red and yellow flowers against a dark blue background with the words: ‘Be self-giving, not self-seeking’ — but what if that’s the wrong marriage advice?

I see the same essential marriage advice given time and time again: “be self-giving, not self-seeking”. Depending on who you listen to, and in what context, the message ranges from the quite helpful to the incredibly toxic.

It can push for balance and mutuality — if both spouses seek the other’s wellbeing, then both will also be on the receiving end and good things tend to happen. But it can also give the impression that marriage is about work or indeed ‘sanctifying’ your spouse. Throw in false assumptions about what men and women need for their well-being (e.g. women need security, men need sex) and it’s a recipe for abuse.

That said, it’s hard for Christians to shake the feeling that marriage is about more than one individual and that marriage shouldn’t come at the expense of one spouse. So, you can see why Christians might encourage self-giving rather than self-seeking for good marital relations.

But I think this approach is fundamentally flawed.

Let me explain.

Good relating and the Methodist Church

Last year the Methodist Conference in the UK issued a report God In Love Unites Us, mapping out various principles and proposals regarding human relationships, sex and marriage.

The report offers several statements for affirmation but I’m focussing on just one for the purposes of this post: the principles or qualities of good relating.

Before I go on, I should say that I think God In Love Unites Us (GILUU) is generally well written for who it’s trying to talk to and what it’s trying to achieve (though I know not everyone will agree). It still has issues, but this post isn’t intended as a ‘take-down’. Rather, I’m referring to it because I think it demonstrates how this thought train of “be self-giving, not self-seeking” trips up — even amongst Christians who are thoughtful, compassionate and decent human beings.

The summary on good relating comes in two bullets (section 2.2.5, square brackets in the original):

All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved.

It is through that self-giving, rather than through self-seeking, that the self flourishes and begins to experience life in all its fullness (although it needs to be recognised that the universal Church’s historic emphasis on self-sacrifice has often been misunderstood and misused [eg by abusive partners] in a way that is destructive of the well-being of the ones abused [often women]).

The first bullet is fair enough. It’s the second one where I see the problem. The writers want to include how the self-giving aspect is important because, presumably, the first bullet is not enough on its own. And yet, they also don’t want to endorse abusive practices, so they have to throw in caveats.

Now, I agree that we should be aiming for self-flourishing here. ‘Flourishing’ is a good word to describe a healthy way of living that has abundance and freedom. Whereas some prominent Christian authors decry self-actualisation as a vice of secular culture, I think it’s a pretty big deal and fully consistent with the Bible. (I mean, what is living life to the full, per John 10:10 if it’s not become the fullest, best versions of ourselves that we can be?)

So I agree that self-flourishing is what we’re aiming for. But I disagree that this is achieved through self-giving, if self-giving is understood as the opposite of self-seeking.

A question of agency

If ‘self-seeking’ is understood as entitlement, then yes — it’s a very bad thing. I also agree that if ‘self-giving’ is the willingness to put others before yourself, then this is an undeniable facet of love.

However, this framework of “self-seeking = bad; self-giving = good” doesn’t give a clear answer about whether it’s good to seek our own self-actualisation or, for example, sexual pleasure in marriage. It also lends itself to abusive interpretation, which is doubtless why the GILUU writers put in a caveat on that exact point.

You see, the framework revolves around who people should prioritise in order to act ethically. But I think that’s the wrong question to be asking. Instead I think our relational ethics should be about how we interact with each other — and that has many layers. Because the really important stuff isn’t about positioning, per se. I think it’s about agency and self-expression.

I believe we should use our agency and self-expression in a way that respects and grows the agency and self-expression of others.

Fundamentally, I believe that healthy self-expression has to be something that flows from the inside, outwards because it has to involve a person’s agency. That can’t happen from the outside, inwards. And it’s damaging if you try.

So I think the contrast we should be drawing is this: are we (1) relating to people in a way that allows them to express themselves from the inside outwards, or (2) trying to express ourselves onto that person, where the result would be the product of our agency, not theirs?

With this framework, it should be immediately why consent is so important: without consent, a person is being constrained in their agency.

But there’s more.

Self-giving, work and play

You see, there are lots of different kinds of self-expression. Some kinds of self-expression are like work: they require effort and they cost us. And if you work for long enough without being replenished, then it becomes damaging. But other kinds of self-expression are like play: they’re what we enjoy doing and whereas they may ‘empty’ us in some way, they are the stuff of life. Play is often what replenishes us and, whether it exhausts us or not, we thrive and grow through play to become fuller people.

It’s these distinctions that I think the writers if GILUU had an underlying awareness of, but couldn’t or didn’t articulate.

“Self-giving” seems to be their term for being willing to work, to serve, in order to enable another person to be able to self-express and flourish. Meanwhile “Self-seeking” is their term for expressing agency in a way that disregards the agency of others (usually underpinned by entitlement).

But this only covers part of the picture. You can be controlling and damaging towards another person without intending to put yourself first.

Moreover — and this is the really amazing part — play begets play.

It’s not just work that supports the agency and self-expression of other people. We also enable people’s agency when we creatively express ourselves to them and with them.

Meanwhile, it’s impossible to separate our own creative self-expression (as in, play) from our own self-flourishing. So, if our play begets play in other people, then it’s legitimate to expect an overlap between (a) seeking one’s own benefit and (b) seeking the benefit of others.

Re-framing ‘self-seeking’

Both work and play are forms of self-giving. Work is self-giving that comes with a personal cost; creative play is self-giving that a person finds enjoyable and beneficial.

This is why I think it’s unfair to contrast “self-giving” against “self-seeking”: we often engage in play with expectations of enjoyment. And that’s OK.

This is especially applicable in marriage. As my husband put it: sex is the one activity where you should be able to go in with expectations of enjoyment. After all, sex is play. It’s naïve to think that we can only experience pleasure unexpectedly, and it’s deeply problematic to normalise lack of pleasure or even discomfort and harm.

The way I see it, abuse is abuse because it’s false play. In disregarding and even violating a person’s agency, it works to destroy their creativity and ability to self-express. Probably that’s what the writers of GILUU had in mind when they wrote “self-seeking”, but I think this term is too ambiguous and it doesn’t carry the strength of “entitled” or “selfish”.

Meanwhile, you don’t rob a person of their agency simply by telling them what you’d like them to do for you. (See, for example, Mark 10:51) Rather, good communication is one of the hallmarks of a healthy marriage and a happy sex life.

So let’s own that it’s OK to seek our own benefit in a context that recognises how true play and genuine flourishing go hand-in-hand with respecting other people’s agency and empowering their ability to self-express. If we can do that, we’ll be better equipped to explain why abusive relating is bad and, more to the point, why good relating leads to mutual flourishing.

 


If you liked this you might also enjoy:

Meanwhile, regarding the normalisation of discomfort in sex, The Week published a simply sensational article about the different expectations that men and women have regarding pain during sex. The female price of male pleasure argues, “Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort.”

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