It’s easy to feel entitled to certain rights and benefits from our marriages. That entitlement always seems to be there but is never helpful in creating a great marriage. Take hope though, there is a better way – it’s called sacrifice.
Gary Thomas’ book “Sacred Marriage” speaks to this when he asks the question, ‘What if marriage was more about making you holy than making you happy’? He confronts the idea that we think marriage should make us all goo-goo ga-ga happy but instead we run smack into our own humanity, and our own sin.
The beauty of marriage is that is in an opportunity to have these ugly things brought to light and then work on putting them out of our lives and thereby experiencing transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit in our marriage.
So let’s take a look at entitlement and how this can damage our marriage, then, how to, instead, move towards giving sacrificially to one another. Our premise is, that at the end of the day, giving sacrificially benefits both myself and my spouse and also my marriage as a whole.
A Sacrificial Marriage
Download our convicting, searching worksheet that will help you take your sacrificial love to the next level.
The Problem of Entitlement in Marriage
Very simply, entitlement is about what I think I deserve from others. It’s about my expectations.
In a marriage, entitlement really stinks because marriage is supposed to be about an entity called “us” and yet entitlement is about the entity called “me”. Yet, the irony of it is, in marriage the intensity of entitlement feelings is unique and amplified compared to other relationships.
Tolmacz looked at this and noted that couple relationships have two very specific dynamics that make them prone to unique issues around entitlement:
- Couple relationships have a high level of intimacy
- Couple relationships generate wants, needs and expectations.
He found evidence from clinical settings and practice shows that entitlement influences the quality of our marriages, and the level of satisfaction we each experience in our marriages.[i]
Caleb has found the same thing – when helping distressed marriages heal and recover, there is always some unhealthy entitlement in the mix that has caused the distress.
What is particularly interesting about this study from Tolmacz is that he found that gender is a huge factor in the issue of relational entitlement and that women are especially affected. This relates to the identity roles we bring to our marriages as men and women where women are socialized to be concerned about meeting the needs of others. This is a great trait, but leads to the depreciation of their own wishes, needs and self-worth and consequently they are more prone to being on the receiving end of the entitlement problem.
This gets more serious though as this same researcher found that entitlement contributes to desire for divorce, and does more so among men and women in making the divorce decision. Generally speaking, is entitlement was a weapon, men are holding it, and women are on the receiving end of its brutality.
It gets even more sever too. There are numerous studies linking entitlement with violence in intimate partner relationships. Abusive men use a sense of entitlement to give an excuse for their violence towards women. Not only that, but men who feel entitled to their wife’s body act more violently than other men.
So, realize, that while we experience and express entitlement at some pretty basic and relatively innocent levels, it also has this really dark, dark side to it. For that reason, even if you are not anywhere near that sever end of the spectrum, we’re asking you to take it very seriously. Husbands, this is a challenge primarily for you – Make sure you get the worksheet.
For the part of our audience that shares our Christian faith – let’s look at Ephesians 5 for a moment. This is a chapter which abusive men who like to use the Bible like a stick – which is not how it was ever intended to be used – will emphasize to their wives that they must submit and get them in a big tizzy over what it means to submit. Something they decline to mention though is the qualifying phrase on the request for wives to submit is “in the Lord”. Meaning, that if you’re doing something Jesus would not do, she is not required to submit.
If you’re a wife in an abusive relationship, before you run with that be careful about the consequences – not to oppress you, but just for your safety. Your plans to change your marriage has to focus on your safety, not on sorting out belief systems with him.
The other part of Ephesians 5 that abusive husbands fail to mention is that the call on husbands is to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. As in, he sacrificied his life for the church: now you go do the same for your wife.
That is the ultimate antidote to the problem of male entitlement in our culture – God intends for men to learn how to die for their wives, and how to love them sacrificially to the point of the complete giving of themselves.
Which leads us to the subject of sacrifice as one of the core parts of the heart of marriage.
The Importance of Sacrifice in Marriage
When we’re talking about sacrifice in this context, it’s the idea of foregoing my own immediate self-interest in order to promote the well-being of my wife or of our relationship.
How Important is Sacrifice?
There was a very interesting study in 2006 where the researchers looked at the links between attitudes about sacrifice and marital outcomes (how the marriages did). They defined sacrifice as putting aside my own interests for the sake of my relationship with my spouse or giving up something for my spouse. For the marital outcomes, they were looking at happiness, the amount of disagreement, how much sharing there was and if there was regret about marriage, and commitment. He’s what they found:
- Couples who found sacrifice more rewarding showed more positive marital outcomes in the early years of marriage.
- These same couples were less distressed and their marriages sustained these qualities over the next year and the year after when they checked back in with them again.
- Sacrifice mediated the link between commitment and marital outcomes for husbands but not for wives.
This ‘mediating’ lingo can be confusing. Let’s say there were two husbands. Both scored 8 out of 10 for commitment. So they’re equally committed to their respective marriages. But one husband scores a 2 out of ten on sacrifice and the other a 10 out of 10. He’s very sacrificial. The 10 out of 10 husband is going to have stronger marital outcomes than the 2 out of 10 husband. So it’s not just enough to be committed. You also need to be sacrificial.
This link was not observed for wives and they think (and we tend to agree with them) that this is because women are already doing it because they’re socialized for it.[ii]
Motivations to Sacrifice
Motivations are very important with respect to sacrifice.
In 2010, researchers found that the more important an activity was to someone, the less willing that person was to sacrifice that activity. So if something’s really important to you, you’re going to be less willing to sacrifice.[iii] Makes sense!
The value we place on an activity is a stronger influence on sacrifice than commitment to the marriage is on sacrifice. So, if you really want to build a sacrificial marriage – you may have to feel some real pain! The conclusion here is just that this sacrifice is going to have to have some real cost to it.
This begs the question, what have you REALLY sacrificed in your marriage. A lot of us say “you can have all of me… except this and this…”. You’re probably thinking, “Do I have to give EVERYTHING up?” Well, you might. Jesus Christ did. Why would you expect less of yourself? That’s just entitlement…
How Do I Build a Sacrificial Marriage?
Are you wanting to take your marriage to the next level and build a sacrificial marriage? Here are five things for you to work on:
- Be willing to give unselfishly: commitment is more than just sticking around the house and helping out with the family, gentlemen. Sacrifice is key here and this means giving in genuine ways for each other even at personal cost. Yes, you may have to get off the couch…or skip your favorite show… or take hunting season off for this year… but be willing to give unselfishly with no expectations of return.
- Be aware of, and thankful for, existing sacrifices. Don’t take the positive things for granted that your spouse is already doing for you. In fact, one of the things we do on the worksheet is list these out. It’s a good exercise in gratitude.
- Don’t sacrifice out of neediness. If sacrifice in your marriage is one-sided, or crazy large or too frequent, it can lead to damage to the person who is always sacrificing. This should be balanced in the relationship but I am calling on men to lead in this area. And I’d also comment — probably more for wives than husbands — if your sacrificing is motivated by fear, that is a problem. That’s not right and I’d urge you to do some serious thinking about what’s taking you down that road.
- Be aware of your motives when you sacrifice. It’s a good thing if sacrifice comes out of a desire for positive outcomes (like making your spouse happy). It’s not a good thing if you’re sacrificing to avoid negative outcomes (like to avoid conflict). Or if you’re doing it on a bartering basis, so your sacrificing right now because you’re worried if you don’t he/she won’t reciprocate later). These researchers found that individuals who sacrificed out of a desire to obtain positive outcomes experienced greater personal well-being compared to those who sacrificed to avoid negative outcomes.[iv]
- Prayer in linked to sacrifice! Three studies were completed looking at the effect of prayer on satisfaction with sacrifice in close relationships. They found:
- Prayer for a spouse predicted later satisfaction with sacrifice. So pray for your spouse, it will make you more grateful when they do sacrifice!
- Couples that had a disagreement found that when they prayed about making a sacrifice as a result of linked to that disagreement, it increased their satisfaction with the sacrifice and strengthened their identity as a couple. It seems like prayer may have redeemed the situations where possibly they were making sacrifices to avoid negative outcomes.
- Praying for your spouse makes you more satisfied than investing that same effort into positive thoughts instead. Prayer helped more than positive thinking with regards to appreciating sacrifice.[v]
Sacrifice is so important. Having the attitude and spirit and bringing that to your marriage to displace your own sense of entitlement is just such a power thing. Give it a shot this week and let us know how it goes.
[i] Rami Tolmacz, “Sense of Entitlement in Couple Relationships: An Attachment Theory Perspective,” American Journal of Psychoanalysis 71, no. 1 (March 2011): 37–57, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/ajp.2010.40.
[ii] Scott M. Stanley et al., “Sacrifice as a Predictor of Marital Outcomes,” Family Process 45, no. 3 (September 2006): 289–303.
[iii] Brent A. Mattingly and Eddie M. Clark, “The Role of Activity Importance and Commitment on Willingness to Sacrifice,” North American Journal of Psychology 12, no. 1 (March 2010): 51–66.
[v] Nathaniel M. Lambert, Frank D. Fincham, and Scott Stanley, “Prayer and Satisfaction with Sacrifice in Close Relationships,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 29, no. 8 (December 2012): 1058.