Is selflessness actually bad for your relationship?
A thoughtful blog post has been making the rounds on social media lately titled, "Marriage Isn’t For You" written by Seth Adam Smith. In the post, Smith speaks honestly and openly about the realization he had a year and a half into his marriage.
Smith's father spurred his A-Ha moment with these words:
"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.”
After this heart-to-heart with his dad, Smith shifted his whole approach to his marriage. And this message must have resonated with many other people as well because it's been shared, forwarded and re-tweeted again and again across the Internet.
We respect what we perceive Smith's intention to be: to bring more love, more depth and more connection to his marriage. It seems that his assertion and advice that "marriage is not about you, but about your spouse" comes from a genuine desire to be more present to and closer with his beloved. That is a wonderful thing, but it can also be dangerous and unhealthy for a relationship.
Where We Get Into Trouble
In his post, Smith talks a lot about shifting from selfishness to selflessness. These are loaded words in our culture, and so many of us twist and turn them around in our minds and in the way we interact with others (especially the ones we love).
We get into trouble when we consider selflessness to be the same as trying to please or get approval from our spouse or partner. Most of us make assumptions about the one we love and then base our decisions on those assumptions which are often inaccurate or completely opposite of what he or she really and truly wants.
There's a tendency to play the martyr when attempting to be selfless, which usually leaves both people unsatisfied. Worse yet, the one who sacrificed his or her own needs and preferences feels resentful and depleted.
The effort to be selfless often derives from an aversion to being seen as narcissistic, self-centered, insensitive, stingy or other permutations of what's predominantly associated with selfishness. The motivation frequently comes from guilt or avoiding looking bad in some way.
This brand of motivation is almost always short-lived and breeds negativity which is the opposite of what is wanted. However, being a certain kind of selfish actually benefits all.
We advocate an acceptance of selfishness. We're not talking about ignoring what your partner is asking, putting down his or her opinion or placing your needs above the needs of the one you love, but about something quite different.
You see, each one of us is already selfish because we come from a unique and situated perspective. You can't really know what the view is from anyone else's eyes but your own and this is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just the way it is. The more you own your selfishness and recognize it (and stop making it wrong), the more open you can actually be to your partner.
When you acknowledge that each of us is selfish, you can consciously develop a habit of engaged listening and compassion. You can release all of the guilt that may come from thinking you have to be a martyr or constantly try to please your spouse and instead, come from your perspective and your own truth while being attentive to where your partner is coming from too.
Being a certain kind of selfish means you can make your marriage happy for the joy of it—not just for you, and not just for your partner (and future or current children).
We encourage you to move away from an either/or mindset where only one of you gets to be happy, have your way, or to benefit from your union and shared love. Adopt a both/and approach and let that be your guide rather than stressing out over whether or not you're being selfish or selfless.
When you and your spouse bump up against a misunderstanding or disagreement, make it your goal to find a solution where you both feel heard and honored. Sit down together on a regular basis and create a long-term relationship plan where you're both getting your needs met instead of one of you feeling like you have to sacrifice so that that other one is satisfied and happy.
With a strong and healthy heart connection, the question is not so much, "Who is the marriage for?" but, "What choices can we make to nourish and grow respect, passion and love?"
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