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Denial of Self vs Personal Growth

Posted on October 20, 2014 at 7:50 PM

October 20, 2014

I’m back! 

So, lo these many months ago, we were talking about the old “Closed Contract” of marriage vs the new “Open Contract.”  As I mentioned previously, the book that inspired this blog series is “Open Marriage,” by Nena O’Neill and George O’Neill (see my list of references).

We spent the last two posts talking about ownership of our partners (clause #1 in the closed contract), so now I’d like to move on to “Denial of Self.”  This one can be tricky, because on the surface, it looks like a virtue.

Talk to anyone who’s been married any length of time, and you’ll hear them talk about the “sacrifices” of marriage.  Now, don’t get me wrong, marriage (especially with children) does require sacrifice from time to time.  Perhaps partners decide to forego eating out and vacations in order to save up a down-payment on a house.  Or maybe one partner works, and pays all the bills, while the other finishes school or starts a business.  These are shared sacrifices that help bind a couple together.  Denial of self is a sacrifice of our identity, independence, or autonomy that actually works against the health and wellbeing of the relationship, as well as the people in it. 

For example, let’s say that, prior to marrying, Mary Jane really loved to go dancing.  She took dance lessons as a little girl, competed as a teenager, and has always found it to be a wonderful outlet of self-expression.  When Mary Jane marries Chris, who has never liked dancing, what happens?  Well, one thing that could happen is that Mary Jane and Chris might take ballroom dancing classes, and Chris may learn to like dancing.  Or, if they’re both open-contract-minded, Chris may tell Mary Jane to go dancing, either alone or with a friend, while Chris does something else.  But if Chris won’t accept either of those solutions, and Mary Jane must sacrifice dancing in order to keep Chris happy, that’s a denial of self.

Let’s take a more subtle example.  Dan comes home from work in a mood.  Morning traffic was a bear, the meeting he’d spent a week preparing for was cancelled, and his boss moved up one of his deadlines “just to impress the customer.”  As he pulls into the driveway, he stuffs all of his angry feelings down into a dark, little hole somewhere, and walks through his front door.  During dinner he hardly says anything.  Cindy, his wife, asks if his dinner is OK.  Dan grumbles, but doesn’t actually say anything.  Cindy, not wanting to upset him further, stops probing, but silently feels that she’s done something wrong.  Dan has denied his self – his upset, angry self – in order (he thinks) to not upset his wife (men must be the emotional rock).  Instead of being authentic, and telling Cindy about his day (and what’s actually wrong), he sacrifices his need for understanding and belonging because “that’s not what men do.”  Needless to say, Cindy’s not happy either, and will probably think it was the kale.

In straining so hard to live up to the ideal of a role, we can forget to be a person.  Time was (and not so long ago) when your average American male would say, with pride, “No wife of mine is ever going to work!” (as though cooking, cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping were all accomplished by fairies!), and wives would say, “Of course I iron my husband’s shirts!  That’s what a wife does!”

It doesn’t have to be like this!  I’m not saying marriage is all hearts and flowers, but neither is it all drudgery and sacrifice.  There’s a better way…keep reading!

Coontz, Stephanie (2005) Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage 

Finkel, Eli J. (2014) The All-or-Nothing Marriage.  Retrieved on 2/17/2014 from 

Gottman, John (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work 

Graff, E. J. (1999) What is Marriage For?  The Strange Social History of our Most Intimate Institution 

Hendricks, Harville (1988, 2008) Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples 

Lerner, Harriet (1989) The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships 

Lerner, Harriet (2001) The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate 

Mazur, Ronald (2000) The New Intimacy: Open-Ended Marriage and Alternative Lifestyles 

O’Neill, Nena & O’Neill, George (1972, 1984) Open Marriage 

Random Facts (website) 63 Interesting Facts About Marriage, retrieved from  http://www.facts.randomhistory.comon October 21, 2013 

Real, Terrence (2007) The New Rules of Marriage

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