By Mikaela Pannell
My mom once told me that the best piece of marriage advice she’s ever received is to “always seek to out-serve your spouse.” If my mom, a woman who has been married for 30 years, says that’s good advice, I’m gonna take that to heart for my own marriage.
In a lot of ways, it can be easy to serve your spouse. Getting them a drink refill while you’re in the kitchen or covering them with a blanket after they’ve fallen asleep doesn’t take much effort. It’s not hard to serve your spouse when you enjoy the task, and you’re not out anything by it.
It’s when the task isn’t so easy that things get more tricky.
Service as sacrifice
Matthew 5:46 says, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?” Of course, our spouse shouldn’t be our enemy, but the point is that Jesus wants us to love and serve each other even when it’s hard or when you aren’t being served in return.
Serving another person (when done selflessly) will always help in building virtue, but when you’re doing something you don’t necessarily enjoy, or when you’re serving each other during more difficult times in your marriage, that’s when real growth toward holiness happens.
Father Kristopher Cowles, parochial vicar for Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Therese and St. Lambert parishes in Sioux Falls, reminds couples that, particularly in marriage, “Man and woman find themself in the true gift of self. In giving of ourselves to our spouse and in making these sacrifices, we actually discover who we are as a person and what we’re made for; that we’re made for gift.”
Additionally, he points out that marriage is a reflection of God and his love for the Church. And a good spouse is always looking for ways to serve the other. Serving in ways that we don’t necessarily enjoy can be a real source of sacrifice.
“It’s very easy for us to stay in our comfort zone,” he cautions. And in marriage, the comfort zone is a place we should not stay in, because there is no sacrifice in it. Holiness is not accomplished there.
Father Cowles has a couple of questions spouses can pose to each other in order to elevate their service of each other:
“How best can I serve you?” “Where do you think I need to grow?”
He acknowledges these are difficult questions to ask because the answer might not be something we like. But again, if we ask those questions in earnest and choose to actually serve in the areas that are uncomfortable, we will be growing in virtue. More specifically, he says, “It gets us focused off our own ego, removes us from our own selfishness, and allows us to focus in on how to notice the needs of others around us and how to care for them.”
If one spouse is going through a hard time, the other might ask themself those questions for direction. For example, I dislike doing dishes, but I do enjoy doing laundry. My husband is the opposite. Long ago, we decided that I would be in charge of laundry and my husband would handle the dishes. Well, lately he has been very busy and under more stress than usual, so I’ve been taking care of the dishes so he doesn’t have to.
Seek ways to serve
Being proactive in looking for ways to serve, rather than waiting for the opportunity to present itself, is crucial. It brings us out of our comfort zone.
One way to do this is to join your spouse in activities or hobbies they like. While this might not appear to be serving your spouse, Father Cowles says, “Participating in areas where they wouldn’t naturally find themselves inclined … taking a personal interest in their lives and entering into those I think can be really powerful because it’s showing that you love them, and it’s not something that you necessarily enjoy.”
This might look like going on a couples’ fishing trip, even though one of you has never touched a fishing pole, or accompanying your spouse to pick out flowers for the landscape, regardless of the fact that you don’t have a green thumb.
We live in a world that puts a lot of emphasis on praise and recognition. It’s a human desire to want acknowledgment for things we do, but that’s not the point of acts of service. When we transition our hearts from that desire, and instead toward more holy desires, it is called “purity of intention.” That should be our goal when it comes to serving each other.
“When we receive the praise, when they notice the stuff that we’re doing and they thank us, we’re meant to consider that as the cherry on top of the sundae. But the service and the love of that spouse should be enough,” Father Cowles explains. “However, aiding our spouses to recognize the good work that they’re doing is important.”
Ultimately, we want to get our spouse to heaven with us. Helping them to see how their actions are gaining them virtue by offering praise when appropriate can be a powerful tool in that regard.
Be the example
It’s a common sentiment that if you hang around someone long enough, you start to become like them. That is especially true in marriage. If one spouse is regularly putting in the effort to serve, the other spouse will want to do the same.
“If we are truly living out the marriage we’re supposed to, the other one sees the gift, the giving of the gift, and they also are invited into that and they want to give of themselves,” Father Cowles says.
That might not always be the case, though. The spouses may not always see how the other person is serving them, at least not right away.
Servant of God Elizabeth Leseur is a fantastic example of this. Her quiet service led to profound holiness within herself and the conversion of her spouse. Her husband was an atheist, she had a chronic illness, and they struggled with infertility their entire marriage. All of these were sources of pain and struggle for her, but she still made immense effort in serving her husband throughout it all. After she died, he found a journal where Elizabeth detailed all of the ways she chose to serve him during their marriage. Her dedication to silent service actually led to his conversion to Catholicism and eventually becoming a priest.
While serving your spouse quietly and/or without recognition may be difficult, it is a profound way to grow in virtue within marriage. And eventually, with God’s help, it will be part of the reason you and your spouse get to heaven.