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Selfishness: The Real Relationship Killer

SelfishnessOur culture is saturated with self-promoting mantras: Do what makes you feel good. Follow your bliss. Always look out for Number One. We patriotically embrace “the pursuit of happiness” and prioritize individual needs and accomplishments over collective ones. We are a proud nation of self-made, self-sufficient men and women.

Along with this admirable self-sufficiency, however, comes potential for selfishness. This selfishness can take the form of failure to listen, failure to emphasize, failure to share, or failure to help.

Most significant achievements in life require sacrifice. We usually have to give up something of value (time, money, energy, etc.) to get what we want financially, socially, professionally, etc. At times, your significant other may seem to be an obstacle to getting what you want. He or she may assert competing goals or somehow challenge your own.

But is it always necessary to sacrifice your significant other’s needs in order to attain your own? Below, we debunk the myths that can transform healthy self-interest into relationship-destroying selfishness.

The Survival Myth

In nature, self-interest plays a crucial role in survival. In certain contexts, we couldn’t survive without aggressive, “me focused” decisions. But modern romantic relationships are different: We’re not stranded in a remote wilderness, forced to fight with (or steal from) our partner just to stay alive.

True love is not a battlefield. Even if it were, what do smart people do in survival scenarios? They band together. They form alliances. They pool resources, even when those resources seem incredibly scarce. They share, not only out of basic human decency, but in faith that their partner might do the same for them someday.

We all need emotional nurture to thrive, but romantic relationships are only one of many sources of this support. A romantic relationship is rarely the only way to put food on the table, or to put a roof over your head. Because romantic relationships are a luxury, not a staple, we can afford to be a little more generous.

The Martyr Myth

That being said, no one wants to be a doormat. So how do you sort through what is truly selfish and what is normal self-interest? When it comes to your partner, consider his or her approach. Does your significant other regularly use manipulation, coercion, or guilt to get his or her way? If so, you’ll need to set clear boundaries and stand up for yourself. Never allow your partner to compromise your self-worth or safety.

The Motivation Myth

Before committing a potentially selfish act, consider your motivation. Are you pursuing a specific objective because it is important to your physical or emotional well-being? Or do you just want to get your way?

If you share finances, remember that lavish treats for yourself cost your partner something. That doesn’t mean you can’t splurge on yourself once in a while; just consider your partner’s needs and financial priorities as well.

If the end goal of your “selfish” behavior is to be able to take better care of others (through proper rest, exercise, nutrition, etc.), that’s not so selfish after all. Humans require a certain amount of nurture simply to be able to function. If we take good care of ourselves in regard to these core needs, we should have more resources available to help others as well.

 The Scarcity Myth 

Admittedly, time and resources are limited. Your needs will occasionally come into direct conflict with those of your partner’s. Certain life decisions—where to live, whose career takes priority, who gets to go back to school, etc.—can pit partners’ interests against each other. In these scenarios, you’ll need to work together to determine what is equitable and fair; compromise is key.

Even ordinary household responsibilities (who needs to do what chores, etc.) can take a toll. While time and energy are limited resources, they aren’t always as scarce as they seem. We make time for what we value most. So before you expect your partner to pick up your slack, dig deep and see if you have any extra strength.

The Self-Protection Myth

Selfishness is often driven by a lack of trust or confidence that anyone else will be truly concerned with our interests. But loving partners do look out for each other’s needs. The more you demonstrate this willingness to your partner, the more likely he or she is to reciprocate.

After getting “burned” by a romantic partner once, people tend to overcompensate. We construct not only defensive barriers but offensive ones as well. Selfishness can cause us to treat our significant other like an outsider or an intruder: We rebuff our partner’s presence; we disregard his/her needs. While we have the potential to provide emotional warmth to our partner, selfishness can prompt us to leave him or her out in the cold. But without warmth, nurture and a little sacrifice, most relationships can’t survive. Selfishness manifests in dozens of ways, but each is potentially lethal to a relationship.


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