I love being in a happy marriage. I love the quotations from the Baha’i Writings that talk about the wonderfulness of marriage. Sometimes though the guidance is challenging to understand and follow. I’m currently striving to grasp this particular quotation below, especially the second sentence:
Baha’is should be profoundly aware of the sanctity of marriage and should strive to make their marriages an eternal bond of unity and harmony. This requires effort and sacrifice and wisdom and self-abnegation.1
These are my thoughts on that sentence, based on my personal experience and my work as a marriage and relationship educator and coach based in the United States and working with couples in many countries.
Daily prayer for our marriage, and both of us regularly expressing gratitude for it and for each other, helps my husband and me stay aware that we are participating in a divine institution. We want our souls to stay connected for eternity. We use consultation skills to stay unified in our understanding and decision-making. We support each other’s work and try to stop working for some time together each day. When difficulties arise, we do our best to offer emotional support. Physical touch is important to both of us. Does all that count as making an “effort”? Is it enough?
The discussion of effort naturally then leads to “sacrifice”. I recognize that time is very linked to this concept. My partner and I give up time on one thing to spend time on another. We have come to recognize that while we both sacrifice our time to work, serve, help family members, look after our physical well-being, shop, cook, and more, it only flows well when we each value the other’s efforts and choices. We have to be equal partners in our marriage. If one of us does all the sacrificing and the other does little or none, the result is disharmony… and eventually disrespect and resentment. It is vital for us to agree on the priorities for how we spend our time.
When I think about sacrifice, I believe that it must lead to the greater good, a positive outcome for us and our family and often for others as well. The following perspective sheds light on this concept:
… this seed sacrificed its form so that the tree might grow and develop. Although the form of the seed was destroyed, its reality manifested itself, in perfect majesty and beauty, in the outward form of the tree.2
Marriage researcher Scott Stanley says, “The essence of sacrifice is choosing to give up something for the benefit of the other.”3
I have learned that applying “wisdom” is essential. If my husband or I sacrifice to the point that well-being is an issue, we have robbed our marriage of our full participation. Balance, moderation, and tuning in to each other’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical condition is vital. My husband came home from work recently fully intending to focus on his second home-based job. It was clear though that I’d had a difficult day. He wisely sacrificed his original intention and spent time listening to me and supporting me. A small example perhaps, but it nurtured our marriage and unity that day. It also equipped me to be an equal partner in consulting about his new business.
This brings us to the most difficult part of the quotation for me to understand: “self-abnegation”. It appears to mean denying oneself some rights or conveniences. However, the term causes a strong emotional pushback for me. You see, I went through an abusive first marriage and ended up feeling like nothing, a lump with no value. This term makes me think about negating myself, which feels scary, unhealthy, and difficult. I worked hard to see myself as a valuable human being. So, how can I apply this concept in marriage? I want to be able to practice “self-abnegation” in the present without triggering feelings and circumstances from the past.
Over and over when I read the Baha’i teachings I’m reminded that there are balancing principles. Baha’u’llah says, “Noble have I created thee”4 and Abdu’l-Baha says, “man’s supreme honor and real happiness lie in self-respect, in high resolves and noble purposes, in integrity and moral quality, in immaculacy of mind.”5
When I strive to understand “self-abnegation” in this context, I wonder if it could to be linked to Abdu’l-Baha’s teaching that “we must sacrifice the important for the most important.”6 For my partner and me, sorting out our priorities and unity of purpose requires prayer and consultation. The Baha’i teachings are full of what is most important and foundational, and a significant focus is maintaining love and unity. Shoghi Effendi uses “self-abnegation” like this: “those who, by their acts of self-abnegation, have emulated the example of the heroes of our Faith at the early dawn of its history.”7 So, can we be heroes for each other in our marriage?
As we assess the quality of our marriage, we see that there is a constant flow of selfless service to each other and support from each other to enable selfless service outward to others. This for us is the heart of “self-abnegation”. We shift our heads away from our computer screens and notice that we need to support each other by cooking, making love, consulting about family and work challenges, and socializing with each other and others. We have to pay attention to what is going on with each other. We must notice each other’s needs and ensure those needs are met. Thoughtfulness, kindness, caring, love, and more are the companion qualities for carrying out “self-abnegation”.
What a united marriage could look like:
The Baha’i community is focused on learning to accompany each other along a path of service and learning towards the transformation of all humanity. Maintaining a unified marriage is one of the many ways we are of service to each other and to others. Marriage is a basic building block for families and the unity of humanity. We are reminded:
… if the friends are not able to maintain harmony within their families, on what other basis do they hope to demonstrate to a skeptical world the efficacy of the pre-eminent character of the Revelation of Baha’u’llah? What possible influence could they hope to exert on the development of nations and the establishment of world peace?8
Sometimes I see couples spend so much time doing community service that their marriages struggle. It is easy to think that this is the only heroic choice when humanity is in such need. I wonder though whether “self-abnegation” at times must look like sacrificing some outward service time to be of service to our marriage partners. This gives us the time and energy to put “effort” into the quality of our marriages and family life.
Surely Shoghi Effendi would like to see you and the other friends give their whole time and energy to the Cause, for we are in great need for competent workers, but the home is an institution that Baha’u’llah has come to strengthen and not to weaken. Many unfortunate things have happened in Baha’i homes just for neglecting this point. Serve the Cause but also remember your duties towards your home. It is for you to find the balance and see that neither makes you neglect the other.9
“Effort and sacrifice and wisdom and self-abnegation” are not easy, but the result is a marriage with strongly-connected partners who see service to each other as an important and loving contribution to community-building. I believe that these actions make it possible for couples to create “a fortress for well-being and salvation.”10 where we truly fulfill the wedding vow, “We will all, verily, abide by the Will of God.”
- On behalf of the Universal House of Justice: Lights of Guidance, #1303 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, 29.11 [↩]
- “Paradox of Sacrifice” presentation, 2007 Smart Marriages Conference [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, Arabic, #22 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 19 [↩]
- Referred to by Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 448 [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 83 [↩]
- On behalf of the Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, #740 [↩]
- On behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, #737 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah: Baha’i Prayers (US 2002), p. 118 [↩]