When Loving Your Spouse Means Caring For Yourself

January 24, 2019

Author: Meg Donica, LMFT Associate

Self care. If you spend any time on the internet, you’re likely familiar with the oh-so trendy term. Maybe you made it one of your New Year’s resolutions of which the new is quickly wearing off. While the term itself is thrown around rather loosely at times (hey there, #treatyoself), self care – in its truest form – is a way of life that is crucial not only for your personal well being, but also for the health of your marriage.

But before we can reap the benefits of self care (personally or relationally), before we can talk about what self care looks like in it truest form and before we can really start to understand why it’s so important to the health and longevity of your marriage, we need to talk about what self care is not.

What Self Care Is Not

Self care is not pampering.

I jokingly (but seriously) called out the #treatyoself culture. While I love a good splurge or big bowl of ice cream as much as the next gal, the reality is that these indulgent experiences are not always meeting my innermost needs. For example, I’m a big fan of a yummy treat in the evening when I’m winding down, especially if it may help me momentarily forget about my stressful work day. But “treating” myself doesn’t do much for me in and of itself. Treating myself in this particular way (using food as an emotional crutch) doesn’t necessarily allow me to process the painful or bothersome experience, which means that I’ll probably carry the baggage from today into tomorrow.

Often times, those indulgent experiences are tools that we use to avoid pain and discomfort, but end up leaving us blind to our own needs. Self care is about having our needs met, not indulging the impulses and urges that tend to follow stress. We must shift our paradigm. True self care encourages us to meet our needs in a way that will be beneficial to us in the long run. That is, true self care is meeting our own needs in ways that have lasting effects for our overall health and wellness.

Self care is not selfish.

It’s a widespread misconception that caring for ourselves should always come last, which really means not at all — as if paying any kind of attention to our own needs might suddenly lead to narcissism. Here’s the truth: taking care of ourselves increases our capacity to love and to care for and to respect others. When we don’t take care of ourselves, we become mentally, emotionally and physically depleted. We end up running on fumes. Ever tried to care for and love someone else when your tank is empty? It works about as well as your car does without gas.

When our reservoirs of energy are depleted, we end up looking to others (i.e. our spouse) to meet needs that simply are not theirs to meet. For example, my husband likes to hit the ground running in the morning while I prefer a slower start to the day. Therefore, he typically spends time with our daughter for the first hour that she is awake. He helps me to create the space to tend to my own needs, but it’s my responsibility to assess and meet them accordingly. I have to tune in and decide for myself what I’m needing that morning, whether it is a workout, meditation, reading or another half hour of rest. Meeting these needs in the morning sets me up to best love my family and friends throughout the day.

Caring for your own needs doesn’t mean you don’t care about the needs of your spouse. And self care doesn’t even necessarily mean you should meet you own needs before you meet your spouse’s. It does mean, though, that you meet your own needs before you end up exhausted, chronically stressed, or just plain done.

Self care is not numbing out.

Numbing out is a clever coping skill that keeps us from feeling discomfort. Think: the third (or fourth) glass of wine, the 6th episode of The Office or whatever else it is that fogs your inner experience and leaves your true needs unmet. Similarly to pampering, emotional numbing has served a purpose in each of our lives at some point or another. However, self care invites us to look at our needs face-to-face. When we see the need for what it is, we have the opportunity to actually meet it. Meeting our basic emotional, mental and physical needs isn’t difficult or complicated, but ignoring them can have serious snowball effects. That’s why meeting our own needs as they arise can actually help us keep from needing to numb out at all.

Maybe what we need is rest, so we sleep. Maybe we just need some fresh air, so we take a walk outside. Maybe we are distracted and not present with our spouse, so we take a break from social media. Self care is not unhealthy coping. Self care is not numbing. It’s taking care of yourself before you have to numb and cope in otherwise unhealthy ways.

What Self Care Is

Self-care is being mentally and emotionally tuned into your needs and then making it a priority to meet those needs. When feeling overwhelmed, allow yourself to stop and feel whatever is presenting itself in the moment. Acknowledge yourself and what needs might be arising. Can you meet those needs? Great, go for it. If not, there is an opportunity to have a connecting conversation with your spouse about how you both can work together to take care of you.
And remember: self care is not so much a to-do list as it is a paradigm shift (though I will offer you a few ideas that you may find useful). Self care is an approach to life that says “my needs matter and I am going to prioritize meeting them.” Below are a few ideas to help you think about how to care of you:

  • Rest
  • Meet up with a friend
  • Make a difficult phone call
  • Take a break from social media
  • Move your body
  • Spend time in nature
  • Cook and eat a hearty meal
  • Schedule an overdue doctor’s appointment
  • Leave work at work
  • Meditate
  • Practice self-compassion
  • Write someone a thank-you note

Navigating Self Care in Marriage

Maybe you are beginning to see how true self care could benefit your marriage. When we meet our basic needs, we create more space for deep and meaningful connection with our spouse. In marriage circles, we talk a lot about sacrificing for the other. And while sacrifice and compromise are important aspects of a thriving marriage, it is also 110% true that both you and your spouse are individual people with individual needs.

In marriage, individuality of the persons goes hand in hand with the unity of the couple – together, we navigate how to honor both elements as we journey throughout life. So, to exclusively sacrifice and not pay attention to your own needs paves the way toward an emotionally, mentally and physically depleted individual.

By practicing self-care, we have the capacity to care more for othe
rs, which points to its essential nature not only for ourselves but also for those around us, and especially for our spouse. When we practice self care, we are less stressed. We take a more open-hearted approach to our relationship. We are less needy. We put fewer unrealistic expectations on each other. We are more inclined to extend grace and forgiveness. Self care isn’t striving for independence so much as it is a priming for more genuine, meaningful connection.

Implementing self care is a practice, and often not an easy one. For many of us, it is counterintuitive. Be kind to yourself (and your spouse) as you begin to develop new habits. Extend yourself compassion when it feels hard. Imagine caring for yourself as you would care for a really good friend.

Maybe you’ve never been given permission to meet your own needs. This is it, should you need it. If you aren’t taking care of yourself and creating margin, you won’t have any gas left in the tank to care for your spouse in ways that are realistic and expected. You can care for yourself safely. You are not going to become narcissistic. Self care is precisely what will allow you to care more about the needs of your spouse. Self care is worth it. You are worth it!


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Lindsay Davenport is a newborn and motherhood photographer + educator based in Dallas and available for travel worldwide.

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