Posted on May 28, 2017


A single young man recently told me that he felt he was too selfish to be able to enter into marriage.  There is something to be said for being able to recognize the selfish tendencies within oneself.  It is also helpful to recognize that selfishness can undermine a marriage.

The question I would raise here is this:  Is selfishness a feeling or is it a way of behaving?  If selfishness is a feeling, nearly all of us are really selfish.  It is inherent in being human that we seek pleasure and avoid pain.  By definition, it makes sense that we would naturally want to do the things we like and not the things we don’t like.  Even in choosing to marry, we do it because we have an expectation that our lives will be better (i.e. more enjoyable) with this other person permanently with us.  I am reminded of the scene in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Collins in preparing to propose to Elizabeth in which he states his reasons for marrying.  Amongst them is, “I am convinced it will add greatly to my happiness.”  Inherently, there was a certain self-interest that brought us to the altar.[1]

If selfishness is about how we behave, our feelings of self-interest are not as important as what we do.  Inherent in maturity is learning to choose how we behave.  When we enter this life, we have no impulse control and no care for any experience but our own.  By the time we are even toilet trained, we have learned some level of impulse control.  As we grow up, we learn that we can’t take whatever we want.  We can’t always do what we want when we want.  Much of this is still in our selfish best interests since our behaviors have consequences.

Hopefully, along the way, we also developed a capacity for empathy.  In its simplest form, this is the ability to relate to the experience of another.  For men, if you grimace or groan when another man gets hit in the crotch, that’s a form of empathy.  You get what that’s like and know that hurt even though it wasn’t happening to you.  The next step in empathy is not just getting what it is like for someone else, but to actually care about the other person’s experience.

At some point, you professed your love for your partner.  That love might have meant a number of different things to you.  It might have been about erotic desire; that is “I am really attracted to/aroused by you.”  It might have meant, “I really enjoy being with you.”  Hopefully, for the sake of your relationship, there was some aspect of that statement that included, “I really care about you.”

Forrest Gump’s mama maintained, “Stupid is as stupid does.”  I would assert that “Selfish is as selfish does.”  If you truly love your partner, you care about your partner’s experience.  It doesn’t mean you cease to feel selfish (i.e. interested in doing whatever you want), but that you make a conscious choice to love and serve your partner.  You also need to do it graciously.  If every time you choose to support your partner you make it clear that you really did not want to, you undermine the whole point.  The point is to demonstrate love to the one you love.  Resentment does not convey love.

Finally, let me appeal once again to your selfish interests.  First, by acting unselfishly, you may actually find that you do, in fact add to your own happiness.  Love begets love.  Kindness begets kindness.  It doesn’t work if you do the right things out of an expectation that things will be quid pro quo.  However, if you choose to set aside your own selfishness to act loving and caring, you might find that those things are reciprocated.  Second, whether behaviors follow feelings or feelings follow behaviors is a bit of the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” kind of question.  In any event, you may find that by acting in an unselfish manner, that you experience a change of heart and actually become less selfish.  Third, the benefits to marriage are myriad as are the negative consequences of divorce.  Success in marriage involves the setting aside of our immediate selfish interests for the benefit of our partner and the partnership.  If you get this right, the benefits include longer life, fewer illnesses, improved finances, and a more satisfying sex life.  Not acting selfish is ultimately in your selfish best interests.

[1] I had a professor in grad school that had among his pithy tongue-in-cheek lines, “If we really cared about our clients, we would send them someplace better.”  By extension, if you had really loved your spouse before marriage, you would have wanted him or her to marry a better partner.