Men, if you want a better marriage, then obey this principle: Out-serve. Your. Wife.
Fourteen years into married life and this is the single biggest principle I’ve found to make a marriage healthy, stable, resilient, and growing. It isn’t complicated or flashy, but it works. If there’s a cost to be paid, you pay it first. If there’s a task to be done, assume it’s your job. If there’s a difficult conversation that has to be had, you take the initiative.
Now, in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m talking to you, gentlemen. I believe that it is your responsibility to pick this up and run with it. Wives, you’re welcome to listen in, but just know that I’m gonna say some things directed at the fellas that really aren’t your responsibility. Cool? Cool. Back to it.
“But Eric,” you say, “Out-serve my wife? That can’t possibly be the most important thing! What about compatibility, good communication, or alignment on direction and goals?”
Yes, those things are important—to start a relationship. To be perfectly frank, I’m assuming that if you’re reading an article about how to have a great marriage, then you’ve already covered those things. The last thing you need is one more article telling you what you already know. In fact, I’d go so far as to say those things are table stakes. If you can’t communicate, don’t know where you’re going, or lack a healthy dose of shared values, then you don’t have a shot at a great marriage. It’s harsh, but it’s true.
It’s an ugly catch-22: you have to get the basics nailed down in order to start a relationship at all, but those basics don’t really do much for the day to day reality of sharing life with another smelly, flawed, weird human being. See, we like to get caught up in the “big” moments of a relationship—the significant milestones, the engagement, the first this or that—and for sure, those moments are important. However, the reality is that they are never what sinks a relationship. No one ever got divorced because their spouse forgot an anniversary or a birthday. No one walks away from a marriage because of one Thanksgiving fight at their in-laws’ house. Those things might be the final straw, but they’re never what really does the damage.
Relationships are won and lost in the nitty-gritty reality of daily life. Marriages or divorces are built out of dirty dishes, changed diapers, grocery runs, and paid bills. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t exciting, romantic, or fulfilling. But it’s crap that has to get done, and it’s in these moments that you have the chance to build a rock-solid relationship.
My wife Kerri and I have been married for 14 years. That’s two grad school graduations, four apartments, two houses, two dogs, five kids, ten motorcycles, and a lifetime’s worth of orphaned socks on the floor. All things considered, we are incredibly blessed. Yet those 14 years have also come with long seasons of loneliness, heartache, and disconnection. We’ve spent months (if not years) feeling like little more than roommates. We’ve endured deaths and miscarriages, pregnancies and illness, and even survived a canoe trip without killing each other. And in those 14 years, I’ve screwed up a remarkable amount of times. I’ve lied, been petty and harsh, made hurtful dumb decisions, dropped the ball more times than I can count (someday I’ll remember to put gas in the car, Kerri), said things I shouldn’t, lost my temper, and a million other things. Yet we’re still standing here 14 years later, better than ever. I firmly believe that the single biggest decision I made to benefit our relationship was this:
I’m never going to let my wife (or my family, for that matter) out-serve me. If there’s a cost that has to be paid in this house, if there’s a task that needs to be done, if somebody needs to step into the uncomfortable task or conversation first—it’s going to be me. I’m never going to ask anyone else in this house to follow me somewhere that I’m not already going. I may not be perfect at this, but I’m going always to be leaning in this direction.
At face value, that seems ridiculous, pretentious, and worst of all—possibly totally inconsequential to building a lasting relationship. It’s horribly me-focused, it doesn’t have anything to do with how Kerri feels, and all it does is set the stage for me to start keeping score and being bitter.
Actually, I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. What’s more, it actually aligns with one of the clearest instructions that the Bible gives to husbands in Ephesians 5:25:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…
What does that mean? It means that Jesus was willing to die for his “bride,” the church. Am I likely to have to die for Kerri? Thankfully, no. However, the choice to die for her would be really, really easy. I love my life and have no desire to meet death anytime soon. But if the situation presented itself where one of the two of us would have to die, I’d take that bullet every single time.
But that’s an easy, one-time choice. Bang, I’m done. The more difficult thing is to love as Christ did every single day. If I assume that Jesus didn’t really want to die an excruciating, horrific death (which seems like a reasonable assumption), then Paul’s instruction to me as a husband means that I must also be willing to do things that I don’t want to do. In fact, he’s saying that my willingness to do the uncomfortable, undesirable, crap I’d really rather not do is the marker for how well I love my wife. It’s easy to take a bullet for her. It’s way more difficult to do the dishes every evening. It’s far more challenging to get up with the kids when I’d rather sleep. It’s way more difficult to engage when I could just sit there and let things happen.
It is an intentional choice—made one moment at a time, every day—that pays dividends over the long haul. Does it mean that I often feel like I’m doing more than “my fair share?” Of course.
But that’s my job.
That’s what it means to be a husband, to give yourself up for her—you have to be willing to do the uncomfortable things first. (It’s also what good leadership means in general, but that’s a rant for another day.) This is how you communicate love over the long term; it is saying with my actions, “I love you enough that I am willing to day in and day out be uncomfortable so that you don’t have to.”
“But Eric—what if she takes advantage of me?” Let her. “What if people say I’m being stupid or a martyr.” Let them. “What if I get tired or frustrated?” You will. Lead by example, and do it anyway.
Ultimately, this approach to your marriage will transform your relationship, but more importantly, it will transform you. It will turn you into the sort of person that stops being so concerned about “my rights and my needs,” and one that is far more concerned with the wellbeing of everyone around them. This isn’t about being some meek little doormat—the exact opposite, actually. This is the type of habit that makes you strong enough to not only endure the difficulty of life, but strong enough to guide, care for, and (if necessary) pick up and carry those around you through that difficulty. I know this sounds like one more obligation telling you to suck it up and work harder. That’s not my goal, but I know that’s how it comes across. If someone had said this to me ten years ago, I’d have felt the same way.
But here’s my story: Kerri and I are 14 years into marriage, and we’re better now than we’ve ever been—and this is one of the biggest reasons why.
There’s greater trust.
We communicate better.
We have more fun.
Our sex life is better. (Yes, it’s better at year 14 than in year 1. Hollywood lies to you, but that’s another rant too.)
When you do the day-in-day-out hard work of building trust and communicating value through the gritty crap of life, it matters. It builds a foundation that impacts more than you can possibly imagine.
Gentlemen, I know this isn’t a popular message. In fact, you’re probably not hearing it anywhere else. But the reality is that the average marriage in America is apathetic and indifferent at best. If you want something better than that, you’re going to have to do something different. Yes, this is uncomfortable and “unfair.” It also works—the question is whether or not you’re willing to pay the cost to get the result you want.