Au Contraire, Marriage is For You

Facebook phenom Seth Adam Smith is well-meaning — and wrong. What he almost gets right about marriage.

wedding knot

Photo | Shutterstock.com

First thing’s first: I’m sure that Seth Adam Smith is a really, really nice guy. If you’ve seen the pictures on his website and read his writing, it’s clear that Smith has got a kind of earnest, freshly scrubbed All-American handsomeness, along with an intense desire to be a Good Man that one finds in really popular youth pastors. It’s a combination of qualities that is winning and should take him far in life.

But man, I cannot stand his most popular piece of writing. You’ve probably read it. It’s a blog post titled “Marriage Isn’t For You,” and in the last week it’s been linked in a million Facebook timelines, been featured on the Today show, and generally been applauded as a font of wisdom about what marriage should be.


Only: It’s not.

Let’s back up. The story behind the blog post is that Smith and his wife have been married less than two years. A recent fight forced Smith to realize that he’d been living selfishly within the marriage, which in turn led to a recollection of advice he received from his father on the eve of his wedding.

With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: Marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married."

Which, ick.

No. That's not fair. Smith is offering up sincerity and my treacle-meter is getting in the way. So let's try this again: What’s appealing about this advice, and Smith’s ruminations about it, is that it is very nearly right. Certainly, one shouldn’t expect to get married and then live one’s life selfishly, as though they owe their partner nothing.

But neither should one abase oneself to one’s partner—marriage is not the Borg. You shouldn’t have to strip away your own identity and ambitions and even thoughts of happiness to share a life and family with the person of your choosing. As described by Smith, you can find your fulfillment in marriage only through an act of self-destruction. That sounds uninviting at best, and just plain wrong at worst.

Understand: I’ve been married for seven years now. I do not hold myself out as an expert on the institution. And I don't want my words to get in the way of people persuaded by Smith to work harder and be better in their own marriages. (I also write, I hope, humbly, knowing that discussing your marriage for public consumption is an invitation to trouble.) Every day my wife and I share together involves work, some self-sacrifice, and the occasional discovery that we've been doing it wrong, on both our parts.

That said: I still reject Smith’s binary choice. My marriage isn’t about the person I married. It’s not about me, either. It’s about us. It’s about the partnership itself, which is both of us and bigger than both of us, and it’s about the things we can accomplish together as partners.

Occasionally, yes, that means you sacrifice sometimes. Same for your spouse. But more often than you’d expect—at least, if you’re as lucky as I’ve been—it means that you create unexpected possibilities with each other. Without each other, it’s fair to say, neither my wife nor I would’ve ended up in Philadelphia. Neither of us would have cobbled together the quirky careers that we have. We certainly wouldn’t have our beautiful son.

I benefit from all of these things, and I think my wife does, too. Marriage isn’t for me? Well it’s not not for me, either. It’s for me and my wife, Seth and his wife, you and the person you’ve chosen. It’s about all of us, and the happiness we build together. Rise from your knees, married folks; go hand-in-hand together towards the future.

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  • BigO

    Good response. Something I haven’t seen yet is a feminist response to Smith’s article, however. Women have long been asked to subvert their identities in marriage, exemplified by things like adopting their husband’s last name or being expected to prioritize domestic duties (that benefit all in a household) over personal fulfillment. As I said to an FB friend’s critique of Smith’s article, he isn’t giving bad advice, but only a man would consider it revelatory. Women are already told in countless ways that marriage isn’t for them.

  • JD

    Yes, I agree completely. Marriage involves give and take. Sometimes we want and need to do things for ourselves, and we should have the freedom to do those things when possible. At the same time, our spouse has needs and desires too. There has to be a balance. If I think that my entire marriage is about making the other person happy and I neglect my own happiness, I am going to end up miserable – that is not happiness. Sure, there is joy in making sacrifices and giving ourselves to the ones we love, but that cannot sustain us forever. Everyone has their own needs too. A marriage is a shared commitment between two people in which compromises must be made.

  • Amy

    I agree that marriage is a partnership. The most successful relationships are carried out both those who are a team and view their spouses as equals. However, I think you (and many others) have taken the article out of context. Smith was not suggesting you give up your own will and ambitions completely so that your sole purpose in life is to please your partner. Rather, it is about each individual, within a partnership, giving 110%. If my fiance gives 110% percent then I am damn sure willing to do the same for him. I can say that we successfully give all that we can to each other without sacrificing who we are as people. And that, my friend, is a partnership.

    • thebagman45

      Eh, if that’s what the original Huffpo article means, then it’s certainly guilty of being hyperbolic and misleading.

  • Coleen McCrea Katz

    You are so off base it’s not even funny! I have been married for 33 years; not 2, not 7, 33! That gives me insight you can only imagine!!! Seth Adam Smith did not say you have to fore go your own happiness entirely or suffer in silence if you are miserable. No! What his point is, that you missed completely, is that we need to focus on making our spouses happy. That is what we did when we were dating or courting or engaged. We tried to make each other happy. We did things the other person liked. We can tend to get into a rut of “I’m not doing that!” just for the sake of not doing it because it IS what the other person wants! Just for spite. So, he is asking us to refocus on being loving and involved and open rather than in shutting ourselves off and being selfish and spiteful. It’s a great piece of advice.

    • linda battson

      any relationship that is based on making another person happy is, to me, foolish. happiness is a transient and often misleading state. honesty does not always equal happiness, nor does life toe the line when it comes to that. relationship should be based on both people being true to themselves and honest in their relating to one another (which addresses the rut you spoke of, too). gameplay (even if “loving”) is a recipe for SHIT!

      • dalemenard

        Sad…so many of the happiest people are those that spend their time working on making others happy. It’s not gameplay, it’s life. We’re all connected, and when we work to make others happy, it makes us happy. I’m sorry you haven’t found that out. 53 years of life, and 21 years of marriage, and I am happiest when I am about making those around me happy. The times I work to make myself happy, eventually make me miserable, as my selfishness overcomes me. I treat a lot of people, and the happiest are those that think least of themselves.

        • linda battson

          yes, I agree about giving of yourself…I’m a single mom who lives very much for others. but I mean that happiness itself isn’t the best goal. I don’t equate love with happiness. sometimes it is a result (oftentimes) but it is not the premiere value in a relationship. maybe this is an issue of semantics.

    • Joel Penner

      Seth’s article was not as well written or balanced as it could have been. His word came across as implying that by doing things right, you are *guaranteed* to get stuff back. Seth’s wording, even in context, also states very clearly that we do have to lose ourselves. This is unhealthy.

      The best way to read his article is to toss out the crap and accept the best… but at the same time being honest about the article’s shortcomings.

    • Dalfield

      Well, if that’s what Seth Adam Smith said, then it would be right. But instead he made the comment, “marriage is not for me”, and stuck to it. Whatever he meant means very little when he can’t express it so we can understand. I do also agree that he probably didn’t mean what he literally typed. I do think his intentions were a little bit better than he expressed them.

  • M

    As a woman AND a domestic violence survivor, Smith’s article made me cringe because it’s the well-meaning false message I heard repeatedly…you just need to love him more/respect him more/pray for him more/have more faith/have a servant’s heart. His abuse towards me was not because of something I failed to do (i.e. sacrifice myself in my marriage). Quite the contrary…I was so willing to sacrifice myself for him (preserve my hope for marriage) that I almost didn’t leave and seek my own safety and well-being and that of my son. His abuse towards me and my son was because of his own desire for control. Marriage “should” be a partnership of mutual love/respect…without that, you have a disfunctional marriage at best. I appreciate your (yes, humble) response.

    • Ioanna

      M – you only saw what you wanted to see and ignored what he said: that the same thing is expected of *him* to his wife. Marriage is about mutual martyrdom, sacrificing oneself for the sake of the other and not making it all about *my* needs being met. Mutual means both, and this article ignores that fact. But in the day of entitled ‘It’s all about me and Jesus’ – this article isn’t all that surprising.

      • http://www.findingmyvirginity.com/ Belle Vierge

        Except that Seth used the example of him being selfish in his marriage for months, and his wife just taking it. His wife responded with selfless love, and the amazing power of her love changed him! It’s awesome that things worked out for them. I’m not belittling that. But this sort of example is literally used to women in abusive relationships as proof that those women aren’t trying hard enough. Because Seth admitted in his post that he wasn’t being selfless in his marriage, even after his dad had advised him that way. And Seth holds this up as a model that yes, he screwed up, but his wife did such an awesome job of being totally selfless that he changed! So no, M didn’t ignore what he said. She saw the message that Seth shared that was shared with her when she was in an abusive relationship.

  • Nanette

    I totally disagree!!! The more you give, the more you receive!!! I will celebrate 24 years in December.

    • Jennifer Zobel

      So, wouldn’t that be the reciprocal, mutual relationship to which he is speaking?

  • JadeT

    I don’t think the purpose of this article is to give yourself up to the point that it is abusive. Did you not read his near end conclusion on how his wife did a selfless thing as an act of love? That was the biggest point of the article. It was his wife’s love for him that was the wake-up call he needed to realize that he married his wife because he loved her and he wanted to make her happy. If this Seth person was just thinking about himself the whole time then that would be a completely different story. It would just be another destructive relationship. That is the kind of relationship we should all walk away from. We all need to be reminded every once in a while that marriage isn’t always about you. And that marriage does require a lot of giving and compromise. It was kind of Seth to share his wake-up call experience to those who needed it. He was man enough to share that we do get caught up in times of selfishness. If your abusive spouse is too selfish to realize it then that is not your fault.

  • Joel Penner

    This is a much more balanced article. Thankyou for writing it.

  • Syl79

    As much as I like your perspective on the matter, and find it better rounded than his, did you have to trash this Seth guy so much? it almost discredits what you have to say, you trash talk so much. You could have just built upon his theory. And it almost seems to me that you completely missed his point.

  • jeremy

    I think there is a ton of great information in all of these articles in ways to approach producing happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately life isn’t all sunshine and sprinkles, the most successful relationships are never ones where everyone is happy all the time. However everyone is held up by their perspective and missing the true point. Mark Gungor is by FAR and large the most profound giver of marital advice. If you are true to the vow and idealistic concepts of marriage even when not actually married as I am not. ( I feel the actual ACT of marriage is more about religion and legalities and don’t require being married to commit myself to reaping the rewards of a life long friendship and partnership). UNCONDITIONAL love and acceptance of the person you choose to spend you life with and are willing to do your best to understand them and support them in the bad and ugly stages of life only then can you be successful. Only if you FULLY commit yourself to the relationship and sacrifice yourself in the hardest and worst of times to take care of the person you love will you be successful. People in todays society are weak and want love and relationships to be easy, they treat it like wal mart, if you don’t like it take it back and get a different one. This approach will never help anyone find happiness with another person. I strongly urge anyone who values their relationship to read or idulge themselves in Mark’s ideas. He is a preacher and uses many religious metaphors, I am not religious AT ALL and have the most profound wisdom in his perspective at the most trying times of life.

  • swis

    All you succeeded in proving is that when someone writes a blog, there is someone else who can come along and split hairs in order to create their own blog. You have seemingly taken us back to the mistake notion that marriage is 50/50. Marriage is about both, but under adverse circumstances such as illness and crisis, one person is not able to contribute their share to the relationship. Therefore, as a pastor, I will continue to instruct people contemplating marriage that happiness comes when we fully invest in the life of the other person. Seth Adam Smith is right on the mark.

  • Calvin

    Perhaps Mr. Smith’s article is best viewed through a filter of mutual submission: Both parties submit to and love one another with nearly their whole being (cf. Ephesians 5:21ff). In doing so, I believe that the man and woman do not “abase” themselves as has been suggested in the above article, but mutually build one another up and empower one another in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

  • Lois Hjelmstad

    Yep, marriage is “we.” It’s the husband, the wife, and the marriage. After 65 years, 1 month, and 25 days, I can attest to the specialness of the marriage bond – total trust, privacy, sharing of secrets, advocacy, history, spiritual and physical oneness.
    Do not let anyone into that sacred space – not your parents, your children (of whom we have four, eleven grands, and eight great-grands), your friends.

  • Cassie Gensiak

    I love this article. I am not married yet, but recently moved from the Philadelphia area to Baton Rouge with my boyfriend. We have been together for 2 years, and we’re still working out our differences and learning to live together. Before we left, my grandparents gave me a card wit this written inside:

    “…Be happy with what you have. Want only what you need. This has been the secret to our happiness for the last 57 years…”

    I love this and I believe that’s what marriage should be. It’s not about making the other person happy, but making you and them happy. It’s not completely selfish, nor is it only about other person. It’s about you as a union and a whole. Together, you make the marriage work through the good, bad, and everything in between.

  • J

    When marriage is 50/50 so is divorce! So I have to agree with Seth in that clearly we are doing something wrong here. I’m part of the divorced under 7 year club, as sad as that is to admit. 7 years, two children an affair and abuse and I was done! But let me back up. Prior to those seven years were 7 more. High school sweet hearts “the perfect couple” blah blah blah. What we had was a show, surface level acts that somehow fit into all the other surface level acts that surrounded us. Here we lived in a great town, affluent area great neighborhoods and schools and yet instead of loving happy marriages that filled those big homes at night it was 50/50. 50 me and 50 you.

    Lunches with girlfriends and dinner parties with couples it was the same scene, an act. Once the guards were down, the gloves were off. The stories of affairs, unhappiness, regret, boredom, mistrust – you name it, it came out.

    The theme for the above was the “me” theme. It centered itself on exactly what Seth was saying we need to NOT do, self centered motives that neglected the purpose of that partnership in the first place. It’s starts with one and then it snow balls until the ball is too big to stop and it wrecks everything in it’s path.

    So your husband works incredibly long hours, well did you ever think that’s because your list of things you must have in order to keep up with Beth down the street, is also incredibly long. Or she never wants to have sex, and a blow job forget it, that’s birthdays only! Well, did you ever think she probably doesn’t think you look at her as special anymore, two/three kids later, crazy hair in the morning exhaustion at night, special is probably how you see her but do you ever show her that? Again it starts with one thing and keeps on going and going. The thing is we don’t take a look at how the other feels through their perspective we simply focus on how we feel through our own perspective. If we take the gloves off and become vulnerable within our own relationships and expose ourselves to our partner as opposed to our girlfriends and buddies on the golf course then perhaps we could accomplish something. If we could just turn the 50/50 towards each other instead of towards ourselves perhaps that sad reality of divorce would start to turn the other way as well.

  • Jane Yavis

    I am with Joel 100%- I’m not that much into personal blogs,,,but on the surface it appears Seth used “selfish” as his cop out. Upscale perhaps, classic cop nonetheless.

  • ekaneti

    Liberals are such miserable petty people. That’s why they are liberal.

  • Franz

    People marry because they are afraid. Afraid of not doing what most others are doing, especially their peers. Afraid of being alone. Afraid of really getting to know themselves. It’s so very hard for us to see this because we want to believe it is our true choosing. You can still find love and have a lasting and deep relationship, but most marriages come about from the fear.

  • k

    Totally agree with this article. I just like the part that marriage is “for a family”…essentially children. I know I did not get married to “have a family” I did it because I love my husband and I like the person he inspires me to be. Yes marriage is give and take but like this article states, both people benefit or else what is the point?
    “I hate you but I want kids??!!”