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Putting Self on the Shelf: When Marriage Isn't All About Me


I remember the day marriage finally made sense to me. I was flying to a speaking engagement and complaining to God in prayer:
God, you knew what I was like and what I would need in a husband. So are You sure You knew what You were doing when You led me to Hugh?

I was convinced God brought the two of us together. I knew He was in it from the day I met Hugh. But certainly God knew that my husband would not be one to express himself verbally in the way I was expecting. Certainly God knew that I would many times need more, emotionally, than my husband appeared able to give. So why did God let it happen? And why wasn't He transforming my husband so he would be the kind of man to meet my needs and expectations?

It was then as if God had pulled me aside and whispered something profound to me:

"Perhaps I was looking at what he needed."

According to the Bible, man was created in the image of God. And woman was created to be man's helper. Woman was created so man would be complete. God didn't create Adam so Eve could be romanced. To the contrary, He created Eve so Adam would have a helper…one suited for him in every way (Genesis 2:18).

In other words, it wasn't all about me. Ouch!

I'm embarrassed to say that for the first 15 or so years of our marriage, I never really thought too much about what my husband needed in a wife…but I thought quite a bit about what I needed in a husband and how he was falling short of my expectations. I hadn't put my own feelings aside long enough to say, "God, show me why you brought me into this man's life and how I can truly help him be all that You created him to be."  I hadn't put myself on the shelf long enough to see the bigger, more beautiful picture of what God has in mind when He brings two people, who are very different from each other,  together to form a union.  

It's tough to leave self on the shelf. Self wants to rule. Self wants its own way. Self suffocates. And self destroys.

The Bible shows us what the opposite of self looks like when it describes love, which is self less:

Love is kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, proud, or rude. Love isn't selfish or quick tempered. It doesn't keep a record of wrongs that others do. Love rejoices in the truth, but not in evil. Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting. Love never fails! First Corinthians 13:4-8a, CEV

Sometimes our marriage looks the opposite of the biblical description of love. We can be unkind, impatient, jealous, boastful, proud and even rude! There are times we are quick-tempered with each other. And God knows there are times we keep records of the wrongs we do to each other. But recognizing what we don't want our relationship to look like is one of the first steps to walking together toward a newer, fresher, lovelier one.

When I got home from that speaking engagement, I had a new perspective on my marriage. Instead of praying for my husband to meet my needs, I began to ask God to show me how I could meet my husband's. Instead of looking at his short-comings, I began to ask God to expose to me my own.  Instead of focusing on my desires, I began to pray about how I could meet his.  And it not only gave me grace to extend to his weaknesses (as I became more aware of my own) but it changed my heart. And our marriage.

My friend, Rhonda, told me how she was able to leave herself on the shelf in her marriage, when it came to expecting her husband, Steve, to meet all of her needs.

"As I grew more intimate with Christ, I let my husband off the hook. He no longer had to be my everything. I could find joy, rest, security and peace in my relationship with Christ. My husband no longer had to be my god. He could be my husband, my friend, my ministry mate. The intimacy in our relationship has always been healthier when I pursue intimacy with Christ first over trying to squeeze every ounce of life out of my husband to make me feel like we are intimate. As we each work on growing more intimate with Christ we find we are more intimate with each other."

Women are not the only ones who need to take their primary needs to God in the relationship. If a husband is expecting his wife to be his all in all, he, too, will be disappointed. She can only give so much. He must look to God, his Heavenly Father, for his affirmation, sense of worth, and validation as a man. As he becomes certain of who he is in God's eyes, he won't depend on his wife to fill a hole in his soul.

Marriage is tough. It shows us how selfish we tend to be. It shows us how much we need God to mend the brokenness in our lives. It shows us how far we really need to go when it comes to being Christ-like in our individual lives and in our marriage. But when we get a glimpse of what God wants to do in and through each of us to help us become more like Himself, we find we have an awesome privilege and responsibility in front of us in this arena called marriage.

To be part of God's work in our spouse's life is to say "God, not what I need, but what my spouse needs. Use me to build up and encourage my spouse and make him (or her) the person you want them to be." When we say "Not what I need, but what my spouse needs" we are, in a sense, imitating Jesus' prayer shortly before going to the cross, in which He said to His Father: "Not my will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:39). Jesus was literally giving up His life for ours. So can we, then, be willing to give up our own comforts, needs, and expectations for the other?

There is no more direct way to draw your spouse's heart toward yours than to put yourself on the shelf and say "not my will, but yours." 

â ¢Not my choice of a restaurant tonight, but yours.
â ¢Not my choice of a movie this time, but yours.
â ¢Not my night to have uninterrupted sleep, but yours.
â ¢Not my story to dominate the conversation, but yours. 
â ¢Not my feelings to protect today, but yours.
â ¢Not my dream to pursue right now, but yours.
As you develop a habit of putting the other person first, you may be surprised to find that the phrase eventually becomes "not my ______, but ours."

Can you leave yourself on the shelf long enough to truly put your husband or wife first? It doesn't come natural. At times, it doesn't come easy. But it does bring priceless - and precious - results. You will end up drawing your hearts closer together. 

Cindi McMenamin is a national speaker and the author of several books including When Women Walk Alone, Letting God Meet Your Emotional Needs, and Women on the Edge.  This article is based on her book When Couples Walk Together, which she co-authored with her husband, Hugh, a pastor.   For more on their Southern California-based ministry or for free resources on troubleshooting your marriage connection, see



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