Who's number one?

Don't be selfish; don't live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing. Philippians 2:3–4

Over the years of our radio program, we have heard many sad stories from people who called in. A lot of these people were on the brink of separation or divorce, or they had already ended their marriages. When we probed about why their marriages didn't last, most of the answers we received sounded something like this:

"He was never there for me."
"She didn't care about my needs."
"I always felt like a second-class citizen to him."
"I had a wife, but I was really alone. There was sex but no real intimacy."
"He was always too busy for me. I felt so needy and unfulfilled."
"I never got the attention I needed from my wife, so I found it elsewhere."

Marriages that go the distance and thrive are marriages where husband and wife serve each other by putting each other first after their allegiance to Christ. Serving love means that you place a higher priority on meeting your spouse’s needs than on meeting your own. We don't want to sound like prophets of doom, but our research and experience have convinced us that if you don't put your spouse first, it may eventually cost you your marriage. It's that important.

Putting your spouse first has a vital prerequisite: thinking of your spouse first. The success of a marriage – or any relationship, for that matter – really goes back to Paul's straightforward words in Philippians 2:3: "Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself." This doesn't mean that we must adopt and nurture an inferiority complex. It doesn't mean thinking less of ourselves than we should as God’s dearly loved and valued creation. Rather, it means seeing ourselves as we really are in Christ and regarding others as even better.

Paul goes on to explain where this attitude comes from: "Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5–8).

Who is greater, you or Jesus? Who deserves more honor and glory, you or Jesus? Who is stronger, more compassionate, more faithful, more wise? Clearly, it's not you. Jesus is number one in all of creation. And yet he thought of you as better than himself when he became a man and died to meet your need for a Savior.

This is the attitude you are to adopt toward your spouse. The contrast is not as dramatic, of course, since you are not perfect and neither is your spouse. In some areas you may be stronger or wiser, while in other areas your spouse is stronger or wiser. But whether your spouse is top dog at the moment or not, if you follow Jesus' model, you will think of your husband or wife as more important. 

When you think of your spouse as more important than yourself, you won't have any trouble putting him or her first in your life. You will lovingly serve your spouse by doing for him or her what you wish others would do for you if you were in the same circumstance. Here are a number of practical guidelines for putting your honey first.

Assist your spouse with his or her more menial tasks, such as making the beds, taking out the trash, cleaning, yardwork, or whatever. Yes, you may have already decided between yourselves which jobs are "his" and which are "hers." But if you view your spouse as more important than yourself, you should be doing all the jobs anyway. So wherever the task might go smoother or faster with two people working and you are present and able to help, jump right in.

Communicate how important your spouse is when you talk about him or her instead of grabbing the spotlight for yourself. Always speak positively and constructively about your spouse around your children. When you are with other adults, make a point to bring up complimentary tidbits about your spouse: a recent job success, a creative project, I ministry he or she has undertaken, an award one, an exciting event coming up on his or her calendar, for example. Then let your spouse tell the details. And you should share your positive comments as generously in private – alone with your spouse – as you do in public.

Never berate, demean, or humiliate your spouse in public or private. Such words and actions fairly shout, "You are not important to me!" This doesn't mean you shouldn't confront or correct inappropriate ways. On the contrary, such activities – when they are done lovingly – can also convey your spouse is of great importance to you. In effect, you are saying, "I love you too much to let you continue in a wrong or harmful direction."

Try to outdo your spouse with courtesy and kindness. One couple we know practices this guideline in restaurants, among other places. George knows that his wife, Carly, likes to sit where she can see the people, not where she is staring at a wall. So when they are escorted to a booth, George always directs Carly to the side of the booth with the best "view," where she is facing the most people, even if that means he can see only a wall beyond her. Carly occasionally protests, offering George her favorite seat. But George enjoys treating Carly to a view seat, and Carrie loves the fact that her husband is so tuned in to her interests.

Make time alone a priority. Nothing says "you are number one in my life" like putting your spouse first with your time. And nothing communicates second-class status (or third or fourth) more than elevating your schedule and activities above time spent with your spouse. We are not talking about spending every waking moment together, of course. But you are wise to carve out significant portions of your week for one-on-one conversation, where you are focused on one another instead of work, a hobby, the TV, your phone, childcare, or even a church function. This may require some practical scheduling on your part, but don't overlook the spontaneous, such as, "Let's get Kelsey to watch the kids for a couple of hours and just go for a drive together." Check out our book 40 Unforgettable Dates with Your Mate for some great date ideas!

If you want your marriage marked by serving love, you can start by putting your spouse first.

Reflect Together

Many things vie for first-place attention and devotion in our lives, such as our children, a career, a hobby, church meetings, or civic responsibilities. What are some activities or interests that tend to monopolize your time? In what ways do they distract you or siphon your energies and time away from your spouse? How does your spouse feel when your over-involvement in these activities rob him of her of your attention?

Pray Together

Lord, it is amazing that you have time for all your children to the point that we all sense we are extremely important and deeply loved by you. You created the heavens and the earth and hold the universe together by your power, yet you're never away or busy or too tired to respond when I call to you or need you. And you are just as interested in and available to my spouse. I praise you for your attentiveness to me in light of your role as a ruler of all. Teach me this week to view my spouse with the same focus and love that you view me. Help me to keep him or her in first place, directly after my devotion to you. Amen.

Renew your Love

Write a letter to your spouse about your priorities. Express in your own words your desire to keep him or her in first place in your life. Identify the interests and activities your spouse may consider his or her rivals for your devotion, then express how much more important your spouse and your marriage are to you than these other things. Confess any areas where you have allowed something other than your spouse to be your primary focus.