How Understanding That We're All Selfish Can Help You In Your Relationship

Science has long been fascinated with the topic of if we're inherently selfish or altruistic as human beings. Do we come out of the womb pre-programmed to not share our food with our classmates or cut someone else in line for a movie ticket? 

Science seems to have agreed that we're a bit of both. We only have to read about ancient civilizations that worked together to take care of one another and similar communities destroy others in the hopes of gaining more land and power. Selfishness runs in our veins just as much as other character traits like jealousy, anger, or ambition. Why is it, then, that when we enter romantic relationships and start dating that we forget this? The movie-induced romantic tales we're told over and over again seem to take over — love is unconditional. There's no room for selfishness when you love someone. You have to love the one you choose completely and without reservation. 

How true and how healthy is this notion? Is there such a thing as unconditional love? Can you love someone completely selflessly? If you've ever been at the receiving end of reaching for the last piece of chocolate cake only to be beaten to it by your significant other, you might answer in the negative to these questions. Maybe you're thinking they're selfish and this could be a sign that your relationship is in trouble. Hold the thought and read on. 

Your partner is selfish and so are you

Think about how you and your partner first met. Did you have a list (imaginary or real) of the qualities you wanted in someone? Did you want for them to look a certain way? What about after you started dating? Did you want them to impress your friends and family? Accompany you to social gatherings that you had to make an appearance at? Take interest in some of your hobbies? Looking at all of the scenarios from an objective point of view, you (and very likely your partner) were operating from a place of self-interest. You both wanted someone who suited your wants and needs. 

For relational psychotherapist Lia Avellino (via Well+Good), being selfish in a relationship is about maintaining healthy boundaries and upholding our own values. It's also about forming a better and more authentic connection with yourself and your partner. Of course, tolerating perpetually self-centered behavior from your significant other is cause for serious concern. A relationship is built on give and take. One person's feelings and needs should not be prioritized over the other's all the time. But a healthy dose of self-interest isn't bad. 

One minute you can love your partner for their generosity and the next day, you can loathe them for their completely self-obsessed nature but as relationship expert Esther Perel puts it — this is the beauty (or harshness) of relational ambivalence. Love is imperfect because people are imperfect. Understanding this is key. 

How this knowledge can help you

The next time your partner forgets to pick up some stuff you wanted from the store (but breezed in without forgetting their own bag of goodies), take a moment to breathe and tell yourself that it's human nature to put yourself first. It could've happened to you too. This doesn't mean that they love you any less. Expecting a fairytale kind of love where your partner puts your needs above yours every single time is going to disappoint you, and we all know what relationship experts have to say about unrealistic expectations. 

Perel wrote in her blog, "To foster a long-term, supportive, rock-solid rapport, try to acknowledge your flaws while still holding yourself and your partner in high regard. Start by freeing yourself from these outdated notions of exemplary partner behavior." Understanding that we're all selfish can foster a sense of forgiveness and compassion for yourself and your partner, the next time one of you messes up. 

Additionally, there are certain instances when your partner or you should be selfish. If you're feeling depleted from caring for their needs or they are starting to resent having to accompany you to all your friend meetups which they themselves don't enjoy, practicing a healthy dose of self-interest could help reset your relationship. It's important to maintain a balance between loving and loving yourself, lest the pendulum swings too far on to one side.