I must confess that I knew very little about helping my wife succeed in the early days of our marriage. I suppose that in a general sense I wanted her to be happy and successful. But the main focus of my attention was on what she could do for me. When she did not live up to my expectations, I sought to motivate her by manipulation. My theme was, “I would treat you better if you would treat me better.” It took me several years to discover the joy of helping Karolyn succeed, but when I did, our marriage changed for the better in a few short weeks.
Success is measured not by the amount of money we possess or the position we attain but by how we use our resources and our opportunities. Truly successful people are those who help others succeed.
A successful wife is one who expends her time and energy helping her husband reach his potential for God and for doing good in the world. Likewise, a successful husband is one who helps his wife succeed in the same way. An old adage says, “You can’t help a man uphill without getting closer to the top yourself.” I agree with my friend Harold Sala, who noted in his book Something More Than Love, “With the possible exception of the parents who give a son guidance in the early years of his life, no single person contributes to the success of a man more than his wife.” It could also be said that a husband makes the greatest contribution to his wife’s success (or failure). Serving each other to encourage success is not limited to gender.
Greatness through serving
So, how does one get started? For me, it began with a fresh examination of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Few people would deny that Jesus has had the most positive impact on human history of any man who ever lived. Yet his approach was not manipulative or self-serving. In fact, quite the contrary: He led by serving others. During the three and a half years of His public life, He healed the sick, fed the hungry, spoke with kindness to the downtrodden and brought hope to the destitute. The apostle Peter summarized the life of Jesus with this statement: “He went around doing good” (Acts 10:38).
Perhaps Jesus’ greatest act of service apart from His sacrificial death on our behalf was when He took a basin of water and a towel and performed the lowly task of washing His disciples’ feet. With that simple yet profound act of service — doing what needed to be done but what no one else wanted to do — Jesus demonstrated humility, love and true leadership.
Husbands, are you willing to humble yourself to such a degree to serve your wife? Wives, are you willing to serve your husband in such a way? Jesus removed all doubt about His intentions when He said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. … Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:14-17). On another occasion Jesus told His followers, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). It’s a great paradox — the way up is down. True greatness is expressed through serving, not by seeking one’s own agenda.
If you want to breathe new life into a marriage, start serving your spouse. Mowing the grass, cooking meals, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming floors, doing the laundry, taking care of the kids while your spouse goes to the gym, washing the car, trimming the shrubs, helping with a computer problem and cleaning out the garage are all examples of acts of service. It took me a long time to figure out that life’s greatest meaning is found in giving, not in getting. When I finally grasped this profound principle, it made a significant difference in my marriage.
Three simple questions
For me, this attitude of service required an acute change of heart. My egocentric spirit had to be released, not to my wife but to God. I remember the day I prayed a simple prayer: “Lord, give me the attitude of Christ. I want to serve my wife as Jesus served His followers.” As I look back on four decades of marriage, I’m convinced that God’s answer to that prayer had a greater impact on my marriage than any prayer I have ever prayed.
Once your heart attitude is changed, it is simply a matter of learning how to express service in ways that will help your spouse reach his or her potential for good. Three simple questions made this practical for me. When I was willing to ask Karolyn these three questions (and do what she suggested!), I was on the road to helping her become successful. The questions are: 1) “What can I do to help you?” 2) “How can I make your life easier?” and 3) “How can I be a better husband?” My wife’s responses to these three questions gave me the agenda that changed our marriage forever.
If you are in a difficult season of marriage and are afraid that if you ask those questions, your spouse will simply say, “It’s too late. I don’t want to hear that,” let me suggest a different approach: Reflect on the complaints your spouse has made during your marriage. Those complaints reveal his or her hidden desires. You may have found them annoying at the time, but now that you have an attitude of service, they give you valuable information. Simply begin doing and saying the things your spouse has requested through the years, and you may well see a softening in his or her attitude. Ultimately, it is difficult to reject a husband or wife who is sincerely trying to help you succeed.
When you discover the joy of helping your spouse succeed, you will begin to establish or restore emotional health, respect, support and encouragement in your marriage. Watching your spouse succeed is one of the great joys of marriage. It is my conviction that marriage is based on the divine principle that two are better than one. In the very beginning, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God’s answer to Adam’s aloneness was the creation of Eve and the institution of marriage. His intention was that the two would become “one flesh.” This does not mean that in marriage we lose our identity as individuals, but it does mean that we choose to give our lives away for the benefit of the other. When this happens, we both succeed. Together, we accomplish more than either one of us could have accomplished alone.
Dr. Gary Chapman is a pastor, speaker and best-selling author of The Five Love Languages.