The Self-Other Continuum

Posted on February 2, 2013


(Author’s note: First, it is the strangest thing.  I could have sworn I published this post last year.  I was all set to write a follow up when I discovered that the original had never been published.  So before I write the follow up, here’s the original.  Second, I could not get the figures to copy into WordPress.  If anyone has figured out how to do this, please let me know.  For now, here is the text.)

We, like all people, are products of our time and culture, a culture which conspires against the permanence of marriage and the couple relationship.  Marriage can be wonderfully satisfying, but it is also often difficult.  The health of the relationship can depend on the extent to which the partners are able to balance the focus on their own needs with the needs of their partner.  One of my own formulations on the problem involves a concept which I describe as “the self-other continuum” (see figure 1).  The self-other continuum has at one extreme (labeled “self focused”) a complete focus on the self in which the needs and wants of the individual are the only priority.  At the other end of the continuum (“other focused”) is a complete focus on the needs of others to the entire disregard for personal wants and needs.  For one to be entirely at either extreme would be pathological.  A consistent focus only on the needs and wants of the self without any concern for the other could be indicative of an Antisocial Personality Disorder (though don’t take that as a diagnosis).  A complete abandoning of self is comparably unhealthy and problematic.

All human beings in relationship are, at any given time, somewhere between the two extremes of the continuum.  The extent to which each partner is focused on the needs of the other represents the level of “giving” in the relationship.  Figure one presents a visual example of a couple in relationship.  The continuum representing the wife is shown above that of the husband.  The continuum for the wife is presented with the “self focused” end at the left while the continuum for the husband is shown with the “self focused” end at the right.  This gives a graphic representation of the couple in relationship.  In the figure, the wife is shown as more “other focused” than is her husband (i.e. her current position on the continuum is closer to the other focused end of the continuum than is her husband).  The area of overlap of the degree of other focus on the two continua in this case is indicative of a surplus of giving in the relationship.  Each is sufficiently focused on the needs of the other that the needs are being met in the relationship.  Figure 2 shows a relationship with a deficit in giving.  The relative “other focus” of each partner is insufficient to meet the needs of the relationship.  It is likely that each partner feels that his or her needs are not being sufficiently met and that his or her partner is too focused on his or her own needs.

Early in romantic relationships, individuals tend to be exceptionally focused on the wants and needs of their partners.  The emotional high of initial infatuation is compounded by a substantial surplus of giving in the relationship that creates a “honeymoon” period in the relationship.  Over time the individuals in relationship settle into a baseline level of “other/self focus” in the relationship reflective of individual dispositions, relationship expectations and experiences, and family of origin examples, all of which could result in either a surplus or deficit of giving still remaining in the relationship.  Kurdek (1993) reported an inverse relationship between the length of time a couple knew one another before marriage and the likelihood of divorce.  I would assert that this initial honeymoon period accounts, at least in part, for the correlation between a short courtship and divorce.  The degree of self focus is also impacted by life stressors.  Fatigue, cumulative resentment in the relationship, attachment injuries, occupational stressors, and the challenges of parenting can cause one to become more self focused in relationship with one’s mate.  Consequently as research has demonstrated, marital satisfaction is reduced by the presence of young children or adolescents in the household as these are stressors that cause a greater self focus for husband and wife and can create a deficit of giving in the marital relationship.  Additionally, the relationship deficit that develops becomes self-perpetuating.  The feeling that one’s needs are not being met in the relationship results in a further shift in the direction of the “self focused” end of the continuum and greater deficits in the relationship.  Problem-focused thinking develops in the couple relationship which hinders productive working together toward solutions.

So what do you do with this?  First, it may be helpful to recognize that your partner isn’t the problem.  If it feels like the relationship is in deficit, it may be just that the demands have increased beyond what your past efforts could sustain.  I had a former colleague who used to say, “Never assume malevolence where ignorance will suffice?”  In other words, “I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, I just did not have a view to the situation.”  I would add to that, “Don’t assume selfishness where fatigue will suffice.”  It could be that you are both exhausted and not that either is trying to ignore your partner’s needs.  Second, if this is resonating with you, you and your partner can recognize this as another form of negative cycle which is the enemy of your relationship.  Together you can fight against this.  Anything that is creating disconnection in your relationship is a foe that you should rally against together.  Third, you can make the decision to make the first step toward healing and putting the relationship in surplus.  This is not to say that you need to carry the entire weight of the relationship.  However, if you try to meet halfway, it will always feel like there is a deficit (see the “Uphill, Both Ways” post from November 19, 2012).  If you each try to give 60-65 percent, the emotional ends might meet.  Fourth, and most importantly, simultaneously ask for the emotional support you need and provide the empathy that your partner seeks.  Ultimately, we need to be able to turn to our partner for comfort and support when life is difficult (and vice versa).


Kurdek, L.A. (1993). Predicting marital dissolution: A 5-year prospective longitudinal study of newlywed couples. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 221-242.

Posted in: Marriage