At church today I was talking to a long-time friend who had just gone through rotator cuff shoulder surgery. She had her left arm immobilized in a sling, while I have my right foot in a boot and using a knee scooter to get around (I just had my right foot basically reconstructed.) We talked about the struggles we were going through in doing the daily aspects of life and how important our husbands are in our recovery. Both she and I lamented our inability to do basic hygiene care, like showering and then getting dressed, by ourselves. Let’s just say that without our spouses, we’d be a mess. It’s a humbling experience, but an experience of great trust to need this kind of care.
The first night after my surgery, I didn’t sleep and neither did my husband who was helping me with icing my foot, administering pain meds, helping me get up as I was pretty woozy, and just helping me get comfortable. The second day after surgery was the worst as the nerve blocks wore off and my pain increased tremendously. It was my husband on the phone in the middle of the night with my surgeon trying to figure out what could be done to manage my pain. He didn’t sleep much that night either.
I am now more than two weeks post-surgery and I am slowly becoming more independent though until I can put weight on my foot, I will still need my husband’s help a lot. He is modeling what self-sacrifice means.
In working with couples and in my own marriage, I’ve come to believe that self-sacrifice is as important as love, trust, and communication in a marriage, and that true self-sacrifice embodies each of these traits. Self-sacrifice is defined as the giving up of one’s own interests or wishes in order to help others or advance a cause. In a marriage, self-sacrifice means to freely choose to give up something for the betterment of your partner. This doesn’t mean that you keep score, “I did this for you today, so you now have to do this for me” as marriage is never to be a competition. Rather, as I’ve heard it said, self-sacrifice bridges the gap between our own self-interests and the interests of our partner.
I realize when I talk with couples seeking to be married, that I haven’t talked enough with them about self-sacrifice and if they truly understand what this means. I think it’s easy for parents to sacrifice for our kids, to stay awake all night holding a sick child or a colicky baby. After all, this is our flesh and blood and the child is helpless. But are we willing to do this for our spouse? Are we willing to help our spouse with basic hygiene or to be up all night caring for our spouse’s illnesses or injuries? Are we willing to do this without keeping score?
My husband and I have been married for more than 36 years and in our marriage we’ve had many times in which we’ve had to put our spouse’s needs over our own. Each time this has happened, our vows of “for better and for worse” and “in sickness and in health” go through my head. When we professed those vows, we were in our 20s and very healthy. If you had asked me at the time if I truly understood what that meant I probably would have said yes, but in reality I didn’t know what it meant as I never had to experience it. 40 years later, I know what our vows mean.
As I work with young couples now, I am going to ask them to define self-sacrifice and talk about what this means in their relationship and to challenge them to think deeply about this concept. Have they seen this kind of sacrifice modeled for them in their parents’ or grandparents’ or other relatives’ relationships or is this idea a foreign one to them? While I know couples are eschewing the traditional vows of in sickness and in health and for better and for worse, the reality is marriage includes in sickness and in health, and for better and for worse. Our young couples have to be prepared to face this.
I’d love to hear your stories of self-sacrifice, including your struggles with this concept. And as always, if your marriage is struggling, please reach out and get help. The “to love and cherish” part of the traditional wedding vows are worth working on.