Happy Couples Secrets About Selfishness

By Edwin A. Locke Ph.D. and Ellen Kenner Ph.D.

“My partner means the world to me. I would do anything for him. I want nothing for myself. I want only please him.”

When you first fall in love, the whole world seems to fade into the background. Your lover is center stage. When you’re apart, you intensely long for this person. You imagine being in one another’s arms. You plan wonderful events to surprise or please your partner. You feel complete.

Fast forward 5 years: “I wish he (or she) would give me a break!”
Now married to this same person, you no longer feel complete, you feel depleted. Your days revolve around catering to your partner. You long for the few moments you can get away from the “ol’ lady” or ”ol’ man,” whether it be grabbing a drink with buddies, or getting a “breather” when your spouse visits relatives or travels for business. Why do most romantic relationships sour so fast? What mental policy is guaranteed to destroy any marital paradise? And what mental policy can rescue your romance?

Try an exercise: Look at the quote at the outset of this article, and see if you find a clue in it. The death knell to a great relationship is in that quote. Don’t read further till you try this.

Did you identify the death knell? If you pulled out these sentences: “I would do anything for him. I want nothing for myself. I want only please him,” you are well on your way to a more rewarding romance. Becoming a doormat in a relationship destroys love. Selflessness, other-ism (altruism), is the romance-killer policy.

To see the selfless pattern clearly, let’s take a trip into the life of Sara and Dan. Dan is Sara’s dream companion: smart, handsome, ambitious, caring and passionate about their lovemaking. Secretly, Sara doesn’t feel as though she’s completely worthy of him. She’s always felt a tad insecure. To make sure he stays around she tells herself that she must make him happy. That thought is soothing to her. At least I’m not selfish, she muses, and I’ll be the best wife I can be.

Dan and Sara go apartment hunting. Dan loves the city; Sara loves the country, but she feels guilty letting Dan know how strongly she feels about this. So when he suggests looking only at apartments in city, she meekly says “Okay.” As they check out apartments he’s chosen, she’s silently at war with herself: Yes, they are all decent apartments, but–in the city! She coaches herself that her needs are not that important. What matters is that Dan is happy, so she feigns approval of Dan’s top choice. Dan senses her hesitancy and encourages her to voice her opinion. She adamantly insists, “Oh no! I really like the place!” and feels shaky inside. This becomes their home.

This selfless (altruistic) pattern continues with their hobbies: Dan enjoys skiing. Sara doesn’t like the cold but doesn’t dare tell Dan her preferences (dancing and playing volleyball). So they spend a few weekends every winter on the slopes. Dan can’t understand why it takes Sara so long to pack for these trips, and why she seems to catch colds when they arrive at the lodge, leaving him to ski alone.

Hopefully Dan will learn, what is wrong with his marriage. He wants a wife who will form and share her values, desires and preferences with him, even if they are not the same as his own. He doesn’t want a wife who echoes all his desires (“Whatever you want dear.”) And Sara will learn that she is her own worst enemy. She, like many others, has bought into the code of self-sacrifice: She feels good only when she martyrs herself, but that “good” feeling is short-lived and is soon replaced by feelings of self-betrayal (her shakiness) and resentment toward the man she once adored.

Of course, men often make the same mistake, and in many relationships, both partners try to sacrifice for one another, ending in mutual insecurity and mutual resentment.

Self-valuing, not selflessness (nor a “my way or the highway” narcissism), is essential for romance. When both partners learn to value themselves, and learn how to communicate well with one another, romance flourishes.

Copyright © 2011 Edwin A. Locke and Ellen Kenner