Thursday, April 23, 2009

Selfishness in relationships

It is a common view that the interests of two people involved in a relationship collide. To take a romantic relationship as the leading example: She likes Ballet, he likes baseball, nobody likes to do the dishes - therefore many times, one has to sacrifice and suffer while the other enjoys. The relationship, therefore, by this view, necessarily has internal battles, and selfishness is a threat to the relationship - something that pulls away from the "together" and builds a wall. 

The exact opposite is true, when "selfishness" is understood correctly. 

To explain what I mean, let's take the common notion of "selfishness" to its extreme: The ultimate selfish person would be the one who could make his girlfriend into a slave. She will cook for him, massage his feet, clean his apartment, and if needed, open beer bottles for him with her teeth. 
Most people will not dispute that this is the ultimate selfish person - concerned with nothing but his own “ass”. The other end of this idea of "selfishness" is the sucker - the woman from this example, who never gets what she wants and is always busy pleasing her man. 
One thing that’s obvious about this allegedly selfish person is that he acts to satisfy his immediate needs. But this is not the essence of selfishness.

To explain why, let's consider a whole different type of a relationship: a relationship where each one enjoys making the other person happy and cares about their partner's well being. 
In action, this means occasionally spending hard-earned money buying presents for the partner, giving them massage when they're tired, making food for them when the time and mood is right and giving them support and encouragement in their career.  

Are they "suckers" or "selfless" for doing such things for their partner? Similarly, is a mother taking care of her kids, paying for their college, instead of training them to be house slaves - a sucker, who is not concerned with her own well being? 

It is precisely their happiness and well being that the person from my example (and the mother) is motivated by, while the so called "egoist" I first discussed is not concerned with happiness at all - especially not in the context of the relationship. One cannot seek happiness in a relationship with someone one tries to enslave. And a person who prefers a beer over a happy relationship with his girlfriend (or boyfriend) is not concerned with his enjoyment. He does act to satisfy his immediate wants, but he does not seek the best possible for himself in life. 
The person who seeks the best for himself, tries to find ways to get out of a swamp – instead of occasionally scratching his bottoms when the swamp water irritate it. He does not adjust or accept the swampy in his life – he acts to change it.

Investing in those one loves gives tremendous value. It is ultimately one's “ass” that one looks after when investing effort in supporting a loved one. The smile on their face gives pleasure, their good mood is fun to be around and their psychological and physical well being is required to enjoy their company.

The other type, who cares best for his beer (to choose a random example) is looking, at best, for some sort of comfort from how much his life suck, but it is not enjoyment or happiness that he seeks in the relationship.  

To use an example to make this even clearer: If a person grows a plant, and spends time nurturing it – is he a selfless sucker, or is he acting selfishly? After all, he is working for the benefit of the plant. Wouldn’t he be selfish to say “the hell with it, I’m not going to enslave myself for the good of a plant”? 
It is easy to see that this thinking is ridiculous – a person nurturing a plant is doing it to enjoy it (for the fruit or the aesthetic value). The fact that it benefits the plant is irrelevant. 
Same thing is true if you replace the plant with a human being. 

Investing in your partner is ultimately investing in your own happiness. It is part of acting to make your life happy – and because of that it is selfish.  

Does this mean that meeting your partner's every requirement is always centered around one's well being? No. Investing in someone else as means to one's own enjoyment depends on one's mood, tasks for the day, personal interests, etc'.  

For example, if you are so bored with ballet, that if you go with your girlfriend to see it, even though her mood might be good afterwards, yours will be so low, you won't be able to enjoy her company at all - obviously in this situation it is not selfish to go see the ballet show with her. But, to give another example: if your time is free, you don't mind or like cooking, and your partner comes home exhausted and hungry - it increases your enjoyment to cook something for them and it is therefore selfish.  
About doing the dishes – assume two people living together, both equally busy, both finding the task annoying. Is it selfish to try to make the other person do it? Essentially, is it selfish to act unjustly to your partner to get away with doing dishes? 
It is not selfish for a few reasons: One is that you will be damaging your relationship – nobody likes to be treated like a slave – it is a certain romance killer. To prefer avoiding dishes over a happy relationship is not pursuing happiness, but the opposite. And the second reason is that being just to other people is a requirement of self-esteem (but I won’t get into it now). It is in both the partner’s interest to reach some just agreement to handle dishes in this case. Their interests do not collide when both of them have their best self-interest in mind. 

To further expand this understanding, consider the case of a battlefield: Is it selfish to stay in your hole, never sticking your neck out to shoot an enemy or help your fellow soldiers? No, it's stupid. Your fellow soldiers alive and well means more firepower. Cooperating with your fellow soldiers (such as providing backup) means you act in the most efficient way to defeat the enemy thus securing your own survival. The guy sitting in his hole doing nothing is escaping the reality of the situation - not acting to support his life. 
What will he do once all his other teammates are dead? His death will follow too. Cooperation with his team is required for his survival.

Does this mean you should do nothing but provide backup for your teammates? Obviously, this would be putting other people’s life above your own. The soldier in this situation has to primarily look out for his own well being, which in turn requires cooperation with the others, and helping them to the extent it serves one's cause (in this case, survival). 

In summary – the selfish person seeks happiness in life – and nurturing a person he loves is an extension of that. Selfishness is therefore a requirement for a good relationship – not a wedge. 
The interests of two such people in a relationship do not collide so long as they do not ignore reality. 
And the common view of selfishness is completely wrong – reversing the meaning of self-interest by presenting laziness and exploitation as selfish behavior, when in fact just cooperation with people is selfish. 


  1. You make a right point my friend. I always thought altruism is a pseudo word. The fact is that no one does anything for the good of others. We do good for other because it makes us feel good, and that is our own selfishness.

    Great writing. I think I have a lot of thought common with you.. :)

  2. That is not the point I was making. It is possible and healthy to give to others selfishly, but it is also possible to do it selflessly, which is bad. Jesus Christ died to save sinners. Now that is as selfless and sick as it gets. He sacrifices the biggest value possible - his life - for people he considers evil. That is a true sacrifice, selfless, and as ugly as it gets.

    People can sacrifice for others out of principle in which case they are not selfish. See my point?

    If it sounds confusing, I again recommend Ayn Rand's books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

    1. Ifat,
      If God is love, as the Bible claims, then He would want to have other beings to express love to. Similarly, many couples desire to bring a child into the world to love and care for. You can't have love without the risk that the love will not be reciprocated. Having a child carries the risk that your child will say and do hurtful things sometimes and may even reject your love. But, if your happiness is bound up in your child, then you would risk all to win his or her love. The possibility of having love returned is a reward that many rational humans have risked even life itself for. It is self interest that ultimately motivates this risk and sacrifice, but it is self interest that is tied up in the goal of making another happy. Those who would sacrifice life itself for the happiness of another do so because this brings them fulfillment to consider that their sacrifice would bring happiness to others. The self interest that also brings happiness to others is the only kind that will also bring happiness to ones self. Self interest that acts without regard to the consequences to others does not bring happiness.
      If one estimates their own temporal life as the biggest possible value, then one does not realize that the belief in an eternal afterlife is to those who hold this belief, to be more highly prized than the here and now. This was the case with Jesus Christ. He believed his temporary suffering and death would be utterly eclipsed by the far greater enjoyment of himself, and those He saved by His death, in eternity.

    2. Hi Linda. I am an atheist. My entire blog is built on careful consideration of facts and not accepting things on faith (such as god or the existence of an afterlife). I don't believe in following orders blindly.

      I don't think the bible sets a good example for loving your children. Recall the story of Abraham who was willing to kill his own child out of loyalty to god, holding obedience as a virtue.
      I find that extremely disgusting, not to mention, an exemplary example of bad parenting. After an example like that, I can hardly listen to anything the bible has to say about love.

      I think self sacrifice is evil because we should live our lives for our own selfish fulfillment and happiness. Other people are a big part of that happiness and making them happy is certainly part of it.
      If one loves another so much that their life will not be worth while without them, it makes sense to end my life in the rare situation in which it could somehow save the other. However, giving up one's own life and happiness to make strangers happy for the chance of being rewarded in the afterlife is a psycho crazy idea which has the potential to destroy a person's life on this earth, which is the only one we have.

      Despite my strong convictions on the subject of religion, I hope my comment helps clarify my position further and perhaps will encourage you to change your mind, because I truly believe that religion is destructive.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. So if I get this right...

    There's sacrificial selflessness, which is bad...

    There's symbiotic selfishness, which makes someone else happy as an extension of ones self to ultimately made yourself happy (sounds a little narcissistic), this kind of selfishness is good...

    And finally there's egocentric selfishness which is where one makes himself happy in the "now" at the expense of others but is never happy in the long run, this selfishness is bad.

    So the only good selfishness is to be selfish by way of someone else...that is, to be selfless with the goal of happiness comming around back to you from the person you're being selfless to...which is in the end...selfish. What a fascinating concept!

  4. No, there are no types of selfishness, one is either acting for one's own good (on principle) or one does not. To settle for a life without a goal, without love and without self esteem only to boss around others to get oneself a beer is not selfish at all, it is to give up values and to give up life. Though this is what people mix together with a person who seeks to make a profit from a job he loves. The two are not types of the same thing, one is selfish behavior and the other is destructive behavior.

    "So the only good selfishness is to be selfish by way of someone else...that is, to be selfless with the goal of happiness comming around back to you from the person you're being selfless to"
    No. This post only discusses selfishness in relationships, not selfishness in general. In general, selfishness is acting according to the principle that the beneficiary of one's actions is oneself: One considers what is good for one and then acts on it with the goal of benefiting oneself. Valuing other human beings and acting on it is no different (in this context) than valuing a car and taking it to special cleaning. Does that make one a selfless slave to the car? That's ridiculous. One is selfish by taking care of one's beloved car, and the same goes for relationships between humans.

  5. Ok, so I stumbled across this page with great interest.

    My ex and I separated three months ago and the main part of the reason being that he wanted to move to America to pursue a career in bodybuilding. He said that he was going, without me or not. We were together for three and a bit years, we had started dating young. We broke up “mutually” at the beginning because he said that we were going down different paths…now I see it that we were only going in separate directions because I didn’t want to do what he wanted to do and there was no compromise. He expected me to leave my family, friends, career and go over to America with him for him to pursue his dream. See where I’m going? It was all about him. He was happy for me to work at an ice cream shop!

    Not only was he like this but our relationship always revolved around ultimatums and I would give in just to save an argument. Not a health relationship at all?

    Now he has a new girlfriend, this being after a week where we were “trying” to get back together (don’t ask me why!). She says that she “wants” to go to America (cha ching!). Who knew it would be so easy to snag a boyfriend if you had a common interest! Quite often people try to establish a connection with people and throw bits of information into the conversation/s to make themselves appealing! I can see it all falling apart as they have already moved in together after a month (who knows somebody after a month?) of being together. But that is a different story altogether and frankly none of my concern.

    In my view, my ex is the definition of a selfish human being.

  6. Hey Hannah. I don't know your ex well enough to talk about his personality, but it does not sound to me like he was selfish in his relationship with you.
    I know he fits the common understanding of 'selfishness' but really, I think you are the rationally selfish one. The reason is - you are looking for a relationship in which you are valued just as you value the other person and you want the kind of relationship in which *you are irreplaceable to one another* (whereas he find a new girlfriend within a week of breaking up with a previous one). Seems to me, you are the one who is after a relationship that is more profound and satisfying.

    Anyway, best of luck to you. I hope you'll develop a good career in whatever you decide to do.

  7. I think the article is needlessly circular - taking an eight mile hike to arrive just one block away.

    Selfishness is measured by the parity of motive.

    1. There is nothing trivial or common sense about this topic given our culture's concept of selfishness today. so I don't think it is redundant.
      But please feel free to explain what you meant by "parity of motive".

    2. I might have to agree with ProformanceDJ on this one. I think what he meant was 'purity of motive' and parity was just a typo. I think what you're doing on this blog is interesting but nevertheless quite simple. You are proving that selfishness is inextricable to human beings. That in every little thing we do there is a desire to achieve our own happiness and that that is selfish.

      There is no discussion on the morality of selfishness and whether it is inherently a problem and what problem's it can bring to us. You say that a man who is doing drugs is not acting selfishly because he is not doing what would make him happy. He is simply drifting through life and letting bad emotions of self-pity, boredom, anger, jealousy perhaps - rule his life. So this is not a man that acts selfishly according to what I've read in your blog.

      But how do you explain that this man might actually believe/think that he is pursuing his happienss? You see the problem here is that there is no moral standard in perceiving selfishness as one's desire to be happy. Since many peopel do things that bring them pain which they believe are actually making them happy. do you see my point?

      Selfisness is a negative word because it was meant to describe a kind of person or a state of mind that is not interested in the well being of others. A person who robs, kills, rapes may very well believe they are pursuing their own happiness - despite them not caring about how their actions affect the lives of those around them.

      Therefore, I don't think you can simply selfishness the way you have here in such an elementary and uninvolved way. You are making it far too simple. If being selfish was just about pursuing our own happiness - then the world would be a very happy place because most people are quite selfish. But it's not a happy place. And your definition of selfishness does not help us understand why.

    3. Hey Sarah, interesting comment. Thanks for putting so much thought into it. It's nice to come across.

      The key difference between how you understand "selfishness" and Ayn Rand's concept of selfishness which I'm presenting here, is that pursuing one's happiness is not done by blindly following emotions, but rather it is thought out and guided by certain principles.

      Here are a few examples:

      1. Your parents pressure you to pursue a certain career, which you're not interested in. You have a choice between caving in, which is emotionally more easy, or pursuing what *you* want instead, despite the difficulties it would present. But since you know you only have a chance to be truly happy doing something that's right for you, you choose the more difficult and less pleasant option of standing up to your parents, because you know it's the right thing to do.

      2. You're an alcoholic, and it's more convenient for you to continue to drink rather than to sober up. But to pursue your happiness, rationally, would mean taking the more difficult path of sobering up. Because what you feel like doing is not what makes you healthy and whole.

      Pursuing your happiness does not mean just doing whatever will bring a good giddy feeling on a certain evening. It means spending time figuring out what's best for you.

      3. I'm really mad at my child for breaking their toy. I feel tempted to yell at them. But at the same time I know that it will not be effective in making them understand what is wrong and be happy in the long run. So I decide to focus on raising my child to be happy and not on the broken toy. It takes effort and thinking, and is not about just pursuing the path of greatest immediate emotional ease. Or suppose I may feel fun spending the night drinking beer with my buddies, even though I think it's important to spend time with my kid. In the long run you will not be working toward your happiness by taking the easiest path of shallow satisfaction and fun. Instead you work toward that state of having a fundamental feeling that your life is good and that you are a good person, and within that context you enjoy whatever comes your way.

      But working to get there, which is the idea of selfishness which she presents, is not at all the same as just drinking beer with your buddies (which, by the way, I have nothing against). I hope this clarifies it somewhat. I think it's a difficult concept and I can warmly recommend her books which are really thought provoking and full of new ideas. You can Google Ayn Rand.

  8. Extremely interesting, selfish is a survival skill. I thought of a pregnant cat, whose kittens have not arrived yet she is already protecting them from any possible territory invader. It is built in her nature to be proactive in this regard. It is built into our nature as well, whether we choose to breed or not... It is survival and this can be hard to understand, since the only real emotion revolves around love or the lack of it. If not taught or shown examples of love, one would naturally be only territorial in behaviors. Selfish is built right into us to survive for sure, no doubt, it is in every living creature. We have a sense to understand the cooperation of getting along with others. Ants, termites, and a few others do it well.. We see them as only nature and it's survival. Ants and termites don't love one another as we see it, they are selfish to cooperate to survive, just as your soldier battlefield example in a separate blog. Selfish is natural and keeps us from "falling apart" when a partner dumps us for a younger substitute or seeing your father hit your mother, you feel helpless at the moment but natures built in selfish survival instincts kick in for selfish survival, just as the pregnant cat or any other living life.

    1. Hi chilled Honey. I liked your comment.

  9. Thank you Ifat Glassman, you are exceptionally intuitive, and a genuine understanding of others.