by Dr. Kristy Money Straubhaar
Marriage advice is everywhere. Well meaning parents, friends, and blogs all seem to have a simple yet profound solution on how to get ‘er done. I’ve noticed this advice usually falls into one of two camps: The key to a successful relationship is A) Altruism (complete selflessness), or B) Self-fulfillment. The recent blog “Marriage Isn’t for You” is a good example of the altruism argument: stop trying to make yourself happy and only focus on making your partner happy. But then, doesn’t that make you happy? And if it doesn’t, maybe you’re not trying hard enough? Or still being too selfish? So try harder! Sacrifice more! Until you lose yourself…but how does one then find that self again? Many have spun in circles thinking about selfishness and selflessness as the only possible motives for why we do good to others: “Well, if I am doing something for someone else, that’s altruistic. Yea!! And yet, as I’m doing it, I feel better, so aren’t I at the root just being selfish? How can I ever truly be selfless? Does true selflessness exist? Are we all self-serving hedonists at the core? Ack!”
I think a lot of said head-spinning comes from the nature of these two states: altruism and hedonism. We tend to think about them as mutually exclusive opposites, and then we pit them against each other to see which is more important. We think that to understand, we need to isolate one or the other and do it perfectly! Or die trying — go big or go home, right? One wins, the other loses. Our natural desire for order, control, and predictability makes that approach sound like a good idea. The problem is, it doesn’t work in the long run. It’s a false dichotomy. A competitive approach for reconciling opposites often leads to heated debate, and over many years of marriage…it leaves us wanting.
Say you just got married, and you had been advised by your mom that marriage isn’t about you, it’s about your spouse, and you feel altruism is a worthy goal so you spend your lifetime subsuming your own ideas/wishes/desires/dreams and instead go with whatever your spouse wants. Sure, that may work for a year or so…but in the long run? Can we say, burnout? To say nothing of a profound loss of identity, possible resentment, and perhaps even the spouse wondering, what happened to the strong, opinionated, defined person I married?
Say your dad told you before you got married you need to look out for #1 (yourself) above all, and in doing so you’ll be a better partner because you’re strong and fulfilled, and your spouse will never want to stray because you’re self-confident and self-assured. Nice principle, but in practice it’s easy to see how the partner might want a bit more give-and-take over the years — not to mention how deferring to your every opinion/preference will get super-old.
So, what’s the magic answer? Which is it, selflessness or self-interest? Cue ageless debate and headspinning. Here’s what I learned in my Ph.D. program on the two seemingly opposed forces of self vs. other interest in relationships:
You can’t set one against the other, so forget the competition between the two. Stop trying to figure out what comes first, whether giving leads to happiness or happiness leads to giving. Altruism and hedonism have always existed and they shouldn’t be considered separate–rather, they are always in relation to one another. Each side has an incomplete part of the truth, and need each other side (see: yin-yang). Likewise, people talk about men and women as opposites: but from an eternal coexistence standpoint, the more powerful qualities lie in their connections, inter-relatedness, and similarities, rather than their differences. Masculine and feminine traits exist in everyone! Why then do we focus so much only on the differences? A need for order and simplicity, I suppose.
Altruism isn’t sustainable long-term. You can’t draw from an empty glass. Neither is unbridled narcissism. So, there’s got to be a way for the two to interact. When both ideas are considered together, each idea (selflessness and self-interest) becomes complete. It’s not an either/or, but a both/and situation.
Embracing opposition is essential to the human condition. It provides depth and richness. We need to feel the pressure of ongoing and simultaneous pushing/pulling. It’s comfortable to quickly eliminate choices and never return to them, espcially if the advice sounds simple and nice and something you you’ve been taught you “should” do (i.e. your purpose in life is to give everything to your spouse, not think about your needs, only theirs…so much potential for abuse there).
Embrace the conflicts of opinion and interest! You can learn about each other, watch the interplay of personality (in a both/and scenario), incorporate what you learned from the other. Paradoxically, each self retains individual qualities, yet that synergy makes something new. Check competition in favor of cooperation.
OK, what does that look like in real life, in therapy? Good question: Abandon agenda and outcomes in therapy. Understand you’re doing something extremely difficult (marriage!), delay immediate gratification, be capable of dealing in uncertainties about how your future will look without all the answers. Give up attempts for rules and control. One of my clinical supervisors once asked me what I thought the most intolerable emotion was. Anger? Sadness? …Helplessness. Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid feeling out of control, not having the answers on-hand. Not being able to fix things right away.
Self-interest pulls for the familiar, the known, the controllable. Altruism pulls for adjustment to the other only. Understand there are no quick solutions, and seek new learning, even from the opposite arguments. Each partner must accept appropriate responsibility for their stuff (it won’t work if one partner always deflects blame, or the other always accepts said blame). Rather than defensiveness, both partners need to extremely vulnerable. Neither victim nor martyr, both come to the table early and empty-handed. Both partners go first: how’s that for a mind-bending paradox?
It’s scary, doing this. It’s super vulnerable. And it won’t work if one of you falls into martyr role. The details of how this would work require a whole lot of trial and error, and are unique to each partnership. With competing demands, is easy to fall into either dominance or submissiveness. Then an argument about abstract principles (“Why are you so selfish all the time?!” “Why do you always spend money on XXXX?”). What’s most important is the feelings and experiences (“I’m feeling trampled on here,” “This morning I didn’t want to get out of bed because I’m really dreading your mom’s visit”).
Criticism, content, and sarcasm often come from ego defense. Submission, conflict avoidance, and stonewalling tend to come from ego abandonment. Neither will work in the long run in an partnership. Mutual vulnerability is so much harder to do. I wish I could say I’ve mastered this. But I haven’t.
A partnership needs altruism AND it needs self-preservation/self-interest. Without the latter, neglect and abuse can run rampant. We’re talking real and intense lived experiences here: fights over sex, money, in-laws, work. It’s not a matter of if these fights will occur, but when. There’s no simple solution, no spouse can have complete control or take the assumed position of decider or martyr. Engage with your spouse. There will be benefits and losses. One side or the other will be infringed upon at some point, no doubt, but don’t stop communicating, being vulnerable, being yourself.
Marriage isn’t all for you, it isn’t all for your spouse. It’s a partnership committed to each other, themselves , and the relationship. And from a stance that once seemed mutually exclusive, beautiful new ideas emerge.
*A million thanks to Dr. Robert Gleave and countless hours of discussion he spent with us in practicum.