“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” -Oscar Wilde
In this quote, Wilde poetically hits at the heart of selfishness. Said another way, selfishness is the tendency to expect someone else to live according to your values, rather than their own.
Of course, to be selfish is a human trait—which means every one of us expresses it from time to time. But when selfishness moves from an occasional behavioral to a prominent character flaw, breakdowns in relationships occur—and no more significantly than in an intimate relationship between spouses.
Are You Living With a Selfish Spouse?
You can’t fix a problem if you don’t see it. And identifying who in your marriage is acting selfishly—and potentially harming the relationship because of it—requires a combination of intuition and honest introspection.
On the one hand, you know your spouse better than anyone, and vice versa. It’s often easy to recognize when and how selfishness is showing up in your relationship. On the other hand, your love often puts up blinders toward each other’s perceived faults.
So, in addition to honoring your intuition, look for warning signs in your spouse—and yourself. Selfishness can manifest in many ways and to varying degrees—from mild annoyance to abject abuse (the latter of which warrants help from an objective third party, such as a therapist or marriage counselor).
Common warning signs include:
- Being constantly late or forgetful.
- Frequently trying to get out of chores, or failing to help out when asked (despite asking for favors).
- Being controlling.
- Being entitled.
- Being careless or indifferent when it comes to other people’s problems (despite being deeply concerned and involved with personal problems).
- Being unwilling to commit to something unless it’s perceived to be personally beneficial.
- Being unwilling or unable to take criticism or hold space for differing opinions (the so-called “my way or the highway” mindset).
Obviously, these signs need to be assessed in context—your spouse’s forgetfulness, for instance, may not necessarily be due to selfishness. Likewise, the above list isn’t all-inclusive. This is why your own intuition will help clarify the problem.
Tips for Eliminating Selfishness From Your Marriage
First, recognize the difference between selfishness and self-care. Self-care—enacting healthy boundaries, prioritizing your physical and mental well-being, and minimizing stress, for instance—is an essential habit for both partners in a relationship. Healthy self-care behaviors do not detract from but rather enhance a marriage, whereas selfish behaviors do the opposite.
Next, realize that undue selflessness isn’t the answer. Constantly subordinating yourself in order to satisfy the whims of your partner will eventually lead to resentment on your end and boredom, distrust, and frustration on your partner’s end. In fact, if we can see extreme selflessness and extreme selfishness as opposite ends of the spectrum, then healthy self-care is the fulcrum, smack dab in the middle—we want to be there.
If you believe selfishness is affecting your relationship, sit down and ask each other a few questions:
- Can you give me specific examples of how I’ve acted selfishly in the past few months?
- Who else do we know is selfish, and how do their actions affect us?
- When I do act selfishly, how does it make you feel?
- How can we alert each other when one of us is acting selfishly—can we agree on a tell (e.g., a signal or statement) that will remind us to pause and re-assess our actions?
- How can we fulfill our own values while making sure we are still honoring each other’s needs in the relationship? In other words, what healthy boundaries do we need to set? Examples: sharing household chores/parenting, scheduling alone time, deciding where to vacation/eat/invest, etc.
Lastly, assume positive intent whenever possible. If both of you are invested in the health and longevity of your marriage, it’s okay to presuppose that you are both doing the best you can and not intentionally trying to cause harm. People often aren’t aware their behaviors are coming off as selfish in the first place, so approach this conversation with humility and love. You may be surprised where it leads.