When two people choose to make marriage a contest to see who can lose the most—and create a household culture of mutual surrender—marriage becomes a radical rebellion, transforming the world through sacrifice from the inside out.
But a healthy relationship of losers requires balance.
Two people dedicated to sacrifice and selflessness and vulnerability.
Relationships with one constant-loser and one always-winner are sad, degrading, and usually abusive. The always-winner dominates and controls through emotional or physical coercion. And the constant-loser sacrifices and forgives and gives grace, but nothing ever changes.
Nothing ever changes because the constant-losers aren’t giving enough grace.
They aren’t giving enough grace to themselves…
When Sacrifice Feels Abusive
School’s out for summer and the neighborhood overflows with bikes racing and trampolines stretching dangerously close to the ripping point, and every stick is a gun or a light saber, and the sidewalks are chalk-scratched rainbows.
As the rays of the summer afternoon sun scorch the still green grass, I hear the back door slam. My nine-year-old son crashes in and his face is wet with sweat and sadness. He agonizes aloud about an injustice happening out in the yard.
It isn’t the first time this scene has played out.
My son tends to be a peacemaker, and he’s been stretched to the limit—he agreed to play soldiers instead of Star Wars, and then football when he really wanted to play basketball, and then he let the other kids jump first on the trampoline.
He’s upset because he has given and sacrificed and compromised and now he simply wants some balance.
What Options Do We Have?
In this situation, I think my son has the very same four options any constant-loser has in an imbalanced or abusive relationship:
First, he can simply endure the imbalanced relationships. He can be quiet, keep giving and sacrificing, and try to be happy with it. For constant-loser, this is usually the default option. And it’s not a bad option—sacrifice is a beautiful thing. Until it’s not. Until it becomes abusive and constant-loser realizes he’s a person, too, and it’s perfectly okay for him to receive good things, as well.
Second, he can fight to change everyone else. He can try to make the other kids compromise. He can plea and beg and get angry and maybe punch someone if he gets frustrated enough. When pushed to the limit, constant-loser will sometimes resort to coercion. It makes relationships a violent and ugly place. And it’s hopeless anyway, because if always-winner doesn’t want to change, all the fighting in the world won’t convince him or her to do so.
Third, he can change himself—he can become as uncompromising as his playmates. He can stop sacrificing and stop giving grace and he can create a kind of cold, subtle standoff. When constant-loser chooses this option in a relationship, the gulf between lovers is like an ocean and constant-loser grows bitter and ages quickly and sometimes has an affair or two.
Or, fourth, my son can create an entirely different kind of balance in his friendships. Instead of settling for imbalance, coercing others, or becoming ungracious himself, he can choose to give himself as much grace as he gives everybody else.
Restoring Balance to Ourselves
Grace isn’t just for other people. We must also extend grace to ourselves. In fact, I believe grace, by its very nature, is intended for everyone in equal parts. The question is: Are we giving ourselves the same grace we would give to others?
And so my son stands before me, angst written upon his face, and I say to him, “I love that you have been so kind and forgiving to the other kids. Are you ready to be that kind to yourself? If you saw another friend being treated the way you have been treated, what would you tell him?”
The angst gives way to comprehension and he smiles and he says, “I’d tell him he doesn’t have to keep playing with those kids if he doesn’t want to. I’d tell him there are other kids to play with, or he could have fun by himself.”
And I ask, “Do you want to follow your own advice?”
We’ve had this conversation a handful of times. On a given afternoon, I have no idea what he’ll do next. Sometimes he returns to play with his peers. Sometimes he invites other friends to play. Sometimes he curls up with a book on the couch. Sometimes he puts on his headphones and rejoins his friends in his own way.
I think he does whatever allows him to give the same amount of grace to everyone, including himself.
Because grace is a balancing act—it’s intended for everyone in equal parts.
Enough Grace to Go Around
We must give our partners grace, but we must learn to give ourselves grace, as well. In the saddest of imbalanced relationships—in marriages fraught with domination and abuse, for instance—restoring the balance of grace within ourselves shows us the way forward.
You see, marriage is the place where we learn to love—both others, and ourselves. When we give as much grace to ourselves as we give to others, our marriages become a training ground for love.
We learn we can’t show true compassion to anyone else until we’ve learned to do it for ourselves.
We learn to set healthy boundaries—the kind we would recommend for others but rarely give ourselves.
We learn to quit punishing ourselves for our mistakes; we learn to forgive ourselves.
We learn marriage isn’t just the training ground for loving another person. We learn it is the training ground for loving every person.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.