Selfishness pervades every romantic relationship, according to Jane Greer. It creeps in “as you grow more comfortable with your partner and worry less about pleasing them.” A couple starts out “picture-perfect but grow ugly to each other over time,” writes the psychotherapist in a new book, What About Me?: Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship.
But lately, Greer has been seeing more and more young couples who are “constantly squabbling, jockeying for position, searching for ways to get their needs met.” She blames advancements in technology and a new kind of self-centredness that has reached epidemic proportions. “Never before has the lament ‘You’re not listening to me’ rung so true. In fact, people are listening to and paying attention to everyone and everything except their partner and their relationship,” she writes. “Porn is a click away, old flames are waiting on Facebook.” The new selfishness is changing even the way people think about their relationships: “When it comes down to giving time to your partner, it can feel like a loss of your personal needs rather than an expression of love,” writes Greer.
The author gives the example of Trent and Violet. Trent works 90 hours a week at a law firm. “When he comes home from work, he wants to relax and play Guitar Hero to decompress from his day.” Violet, who used to work at the same law firm, is now a stay-at-home mom. When Trent plays Guitar Hero, Violet feels “rejected, neglected and unloved. But when she tells this to Trent, he gets angry and often says, ‘Can’t you just leave me alone for 30 minutes to unwind?’ Violet is frustrated by his behaviour. She doesn’t understand. If he loved her, wouldn’t he want to spend time with her? Why is he so selfish?”
Spouses like Violet should speak up with complaints before they “get so angry [they] explode,” writes Greer. Often in relationships, there is a “taker” and a “martyr,” she explains. If you’re the martyr, “you must learn to face your anger and hold on to it so it can be a force for change.”
And when you do raise your complaint, don’t allow your selfish partner to derail your point with an angry counter-accusation. Greer gives the example of a spouse who is always late. “You finally get the nerve to bring it up, and he turns around and says you nag him constantly, you never leave him alone! What is wrong with you?”
“Respond to his verbal attacks, rather than react,” she advises. “The knee-jerk reaction is to launch into defending yourself against his criticism. But when you do that, you’ve lost the chance to stay focused on what upset you in the first place. Don’t allow yourself to be derailed. Instead, respond to the accusation by saying, as calmly as possible, that you would be willing to talk about the fact that he thinks you nag him at another time, but now you want to talk about his being late.”
And don’t assume “he should know” why you’re upset without verbalizing it. That’s a “carryover from infancy,” explains Greer, “when we had no choice but to depend on our parents to ‘know’ when we were hungry or tired, because we weren’t able to talk. As an adult, though, you now have the ability and power to convey your needs verbally.”
Set limits for your partner. “The common assumption is that putting limits in place means telling the other person to stop the behaviour that is bothering you. Not true,” she writes. “Setting limits means using your anger to first realize something is wrong, and then you take the necessary steps and make the necessary changes. You must push back in a constructive way and be clear about what you will and will not accept.”
In the case of Trent and Violet, “they found a resolution by deciding Trent could play video games guilt-free and uninterrupted for 20 minutes when he walked in the door. He would go right to the den and start to play. Violet timed it, but in her mind she pretended it was still part of his workday. When the 20 minutes were up, Trent felt better, and they greeted each other like he had just walked in. Trent was able to decompress, and he felt both relieved and supported by Violet, and consequently was able to genuinely and positively be involved with her.”