I’ve been writing about relationships for a number of years now, and during that time I’ve read a lot of books and talked to a lot of people.
One thing I’ve found is, although each person and each relationship is a bit different; people’s problems are largely the same. There are a lot of couples out there who are struggling with slightly different variations of the same things. But when you really break down the problems, at their root one of the largest problems is that people frequently choose “me” over “we”.
Put another way, one of the largest problems in relationships is selfishness.
I see being in a relationship as being part of a team. And the same team “skills” that apply in a work environment or on a sports team also apply in relationships.
For years, Pat Riley was widely regarded as one of the top coaches in professional basketball. He coined the phrase “the disease of me” to describe selfishness, and how runs contrary to the ideas that are required in order for a team to succeed.
The most difficult thing for players to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice. It is much easier, and much more natural, to be selfish. – Pat Riley
Pat Riley makes a great observation here – it is much more natural to be selfish. I believe this is very true.
As children, our world is about our needs and our fears. Parents are in our life to provide for us and to shelter us, and I think we see them for the utility that they bring us instead of seeing us as people.
We grow, and develop friendships. And although we care about those people, it is still mainly about what they do for us. How much we enjoy being around them, and how they make us feel.
We start romantic relationships, and in the beginning these are COMPLETELY about us. We have things we want out of life, and things we are looking for in another person. And we view this potential partner in terms of what WE get out of the relationship, and how WE feel around that person.
This sense of love being about us and our needs is captured well by someone who writes about having an affair:
I wish I’d known what love was. I craved feelings I labeled as love. Feelings that came from having someone I valued value me in return. It made me feel I was all that. In fact, the more I esteemed the other person, the stronger the effect. But, what I really loved was how they made me feel about myself. The reflection of my image in their eyes made me feel amazing. But love isn’t that feeling, rather it’s the grace my wife extended, not when I deserved it, but rather when I least deserved it.
This inherent selfishness makes sense. As a person, I can’t see into someone else’s head – but I am acutely aware of what I feel. My feelings, my emotions, and how events impact me. I may be able to tell that I have hurt someone around me, but I’m experiencing that through observation and interpretation of their actions and responses to my own. I can’t actually FEEL their pain. So it makes sense that it is less important to me than my own.
So yeah, selfishness may be inherent. But not being able to grow past it is a sign of emotional immaturity.
Truly caring for others (versus seeing them primarily as a tool for our own needs) is learned. Empathy is learned. But the capability to learn these things is a huge part of what makes us human.
We may start by only being able to see the world in terms of how it affects us. But part of growing up involves understanding that everything isn’t about us.
We may go into relationships because of what we want, and what we get out of them. But for that relationship to truly grow and succeed, it HAS to become something more. We have to come to see the other persons wants and needs as just as important as our own. And there are times that we have to be willing to sacrifice what WE want for the benefit of the relationship.
If we can’t?
Then what we have isn’t truly a relationship.
Or if it is, it’s a parasitic one instead of a symbiotic one. If we are there primarily for what we get and we can’t see the value of what we put in, the relationship will never be able to last.
In discussing the “disease of me” in the context of a basketball team, Pat Riley came up with the following warning signs:
- Feelings of under appreciation (‘woe is me’)
- Focusing on personal playing time and stats
- Internal cliques within the team
- Excessive joy in a personal performance when the team loses
- Frustration from lack of playing time when the team wins
- Desire to have more recognition than a teammate
Although this list has a basketball focus, the basic idea still applies in relationships. Not feeling appreciated, focusing on what YOU get out of the relationship, not taking pride in or appreciating your partner’s successes, and valuing yourself above your partner. All of these indicate selfishness.
But wait a minute? What about me? Am I saying that relationships are all about “us”, and you need to lose the “me” in order to be successful in a relationship?
No, not at all.
You matter. Your needs and wants in the relationship matter. You need to be able to maintain the “individual” as part of the relationship.
But your partner matters too.
In a healthy relationship, you have found a balance between me and we. You accept that you are building something larger than you, and that sometimes you need to sacrifice for the good of the relationship.
Healthy relationships have strong communication, and accept that there are both individual and couple goals. And they work to find a balance where both can be worked towards.
I think the following quote sums this up well:
Everyone has needs and wants, and it’s important to strive towards them. That’s healthy.
But when you put your needs and wants above those of your partner, and expect them to conform to you; that’s selfish. And that is VERY bad for relationships.
A while back I came up with my three keys to a successful relationship:
- love each other (actively)
- don’t be selfish
Three simple rules that I think can make any relationship better.
Loving each other should be easy. Communication may not be easy, but it’s a skill that can be improved over time. The real key is not being selfish.
Selfish people CAN change. But no one can change them.
They have to be willing to see how much damage their self-absorption has caused to those around them, and then they have to want to change on their own.
And when they can’t, or won’t? Sometimes the only thing you can do is walk away. Because often their pursuit of happiness will come at the expense of yours.