Smart Marriage: How an Attitude of Entitlement Undermines Marriage
Fr. George Morelli
Christian marriage is an exalted vocation. Marriage, as the Apostle Paul taught, replicates the relationship between Christ and the Church where Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride. Bridegrooms are called to love and care for their bride with selfless commitment. "Husbands love your wives," St. Paul wrote, "as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:21).
Love is relational, and the icon of pure and undefiled love is the relationship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). We catch glimpses of the nature of this love because it overflows to mankind, particularly in the self-sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. St. Paul described this love as kenotic (self-emptying), particularly when Christ forsook the prerogatives of divinity to assume human nature in order to save mankind. The love was so certain, so sure, and so complete, that it led to His death on our behalf.
In Christian marriage, authentic and true love seeks to replicate the type of self-sacrifice Christ revealed to us when He became man and dwelt among us (and which is still expressed today in Christ's faithfulness to His Church). Self-sacrificial love conforms to the Great Commandment to love our neighbor more highly than ourselves in so doing we also love and honor God (Matthew 25:36- 40, 1 John 4:19-21). This kind of love between husband and wife, even if imperfectly practiced and not always realized, constitutes what St. John Chrysostom called the "small church" and as such ensures the health and stability of the family in raising children (Chrysostom, Homily XX).
These lessons are affirmed in the Orthodox wedding service. In one part of the ceremony the Holy Spirit is invoked to: "Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant unto them fair children for education in thy faith and fear ... " The spiritual goal of marriage is never divorced from the parental vocation. Love, when properly understood, is always directed toward the neighbor, first to the spouse and then to the children.
The Evil One relentlessly seeks to corrupt the love of Christ. Marriage and family, because of the complexity and immediacy of the social relationship, is a fertile field for such corruption. In case we think the potential for spiritual corruption is overstated, consider that it can happen between Christ and His Church as well. St. Paul reminded the Corinthian church: "I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (1 Corinthians 11: 2-3). If the Church can defile its communion with Christ, we certainly can defile our communion with one another.
One subtle corruption is the feeling of entitlement (Morelli, 2006a). Entitlement is when the spouse or parent feels they deserve love, companionship, happiness, honesty, obedience, etc. Entitlement works hand in hand with expectations. When an event occurs in which one family member does not feel that others lived up to what was expected of them, feelings of anger and being used result.
From the outset, it should be noted that some events fulfill expectations that are desirable and often good. The problem occurs when the events themselves become a test of whether or not expectations are met. In clinical terms desirable preferences have transformed into demanding expectations where the failure to meet the preferences results in emotions (usually anger) that impairs the ability to attain desirable goals. Often the resolution to this conflict is to change the goals. In fact, what is really needed is a shift in perception from demanding expectations back to desirable goals.
A few examples may help us understand entitlement. A mother feels entitled to love and respect from her daughter: "After all I am her mother." A father feels his son should listen and take his advice: "I am the father; he should listen and do what I tell him." The same is true of a husband and wife: "I am his wife; he should ... " or "I am her husband; she should ... " When family members do not meet our expectations we may feel the right to be angry. Alternatively, we may feel that we are unworthy because our expectations are not met and respond by feeling angry, depressed, etc. Either way, any one consumed by these emotions will not be very good at bringing about the outcomes they would like (Morelli, 2006d).
The key here to understanding entitlement is to see the word "title" imbedded in the larger word. Whenever we make a demand based on our title (eg: father, mother, husband, wife, etc.) we operate from an entitlement perspective. The solution is to realize that a title is no guarantee of specific behaviors.
The antidote to demanding expectations is to develop preferences for and about our family members based on love, that is, preferring the good and welfare of spouse and child, i.e, preferring rather than demanding that children honor their father and mother, or preferring the mutuality of love and respect between spouses. Instead of conceptualizing our expectations in terms of an entitlement, we can frame them as invitation that others may accept in order to help themselves.
Our Lord never forced anyone by using His title. Instead, He recognized that obedience and respect are freely given. In the same way the recognition that all people freely offer obedience and cooperation lifts preferences above a battle of the wills because the demanding expectation is diminished. People often "dig in" when they feel coerced into particular behaviors because they feel they need to save face and protect their selfidentity.
How can spouses and parents forego demanding expectations and still bring about desirable behavior among family members? First of all, spouses and parents are more likely to be effective in bringing about the desirable preferences they seek if they are not consumed by anger and depression. (Morelli, 2005c, 2006c,d). Second, the most effective way of bringing about appropriate family goals is to state the desires clearly and the consequences if the desires are not met (Morelli, 2005b, 2006b). Although Jesus did not use His title to coerce certain behaviors, He was clear about the consequences of heeding or not heeding His words.
Take the example of a child speaking disrespectfully to his father to understand how the lesson of this parable could be applied. In the framework of demanding expectations, the parent could be expected to respond to the disrespect in emotional terms, probably anger perhaps even a tirade because his title of father is not acknowledged properly.
A more measured and ultimately more constructive approach is to step aside from the entitlement and the demanding expectation it engenders and state the problem in terms of desirable expectations. The father could say, "We do not talk like that to one another, you were told before if you said that disrespectful word, you would not be able to watch TV tonight, so tonight there will be no television, tomorrow you can try again." Consequences, not emotional outbursts that result from disappointed entitlements, bring about desirable behavior changes and strengthen family life.
The Orthodox Christian marriage and family vocation is to be a spouse and parent in the imitation of Christ. Entitlement is the subtle work of the Evil One and undermines and may even destroy the unity necessary to meet the goals of this divine vocation. Direct, teach, and most importantly love your spouse and family with intelligence, mercy, forgiveness, in the same way that Christ loves His Church.