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SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, coaches Kim Giles and Nicole Cunningham explain the real cause of selfishness in a relationship and how to change it.
My wife and I can’t seem to get along. No matter how hard I try to please her, she says I am selfish with my choices. I am unaware of how my behavior is selfish and have taken great offense to being called this by her again and again. We have been married eight years and I am afraid this may be something we can’t come back from I’m feeling very resentful. Frankly, I think that she is the selfish one, only concerned with herself. Can you give us any advice?
It is hard to feel safe and have good connection in a relationship if you feel your partner is only concerned with their own needs and is not showing up for you. Most of us tend to pull back and focus on ourselves when we feel this too, which means we can become selfish. This is a recipe for disaster in a marriage, because if everyone is focused on what they aren’t getting — no one is giving anything.
You must accurately understand what causes selfishness though if you want to fix it. We believe the real cause of selfishness is fear of loss, and we all battle fear of loss to some degree every day. Fear of loss is basically suffering over feeling mistreated, taken from, ripped off, walked on or not getting what you were hoping to get.
Every time your spouse does anything that makes you feel your needs aren’t being met, you may find yourself in a fear of loss, scarcity, hard-done-by state. The second you feel you aren’t getting what you expected, you can be in fear of loss and this drives you to subconsciously focus on protecting yourself, controlling things and getting your own needs met. Fear of losing out creates selfishness.
The question you must ask yourself is how much of the time are you thinking about what you aren’t getting and how often are you focused on meeting your spouse’s needs and giving to them? (The right answer is not what you might think. Being totally focused on the other person isn't healthy either. It's co-dependent and this creates problems in relationships too.) The right answer is to have a good equal balance between taking care of yourself and showing up for your spouse.
Good relationships are created when both partners work on their own fears of failure and loss, feel secure and good about themselves and know how to ask for what they want and need, (so they are responsible for their needs and don’t make it their partner's job to keep them happy.)
It is your job (not your partner's) to make sure your needs are being met and your bucket is kept full. If you are running on empty and are desperate for validation and reassurance that you are good enough, loved and wanted, you may not be good at asking for what you need and doing self-care. This is the first thing we recommend you both work on. If you make sure your bucket is full, you will always have the energy to give to your family.
But, you could have an unhealthy partner, who despite any amount of self-care, boundaries and speaking up, isn’t interested in showing up for you. If you really feel your spouse doesn’t care and is only in this for themselves, we highly recommend you seek out a coach or counselor who can help you both work on the relationship. If your spouse is not willing to get professional help, you may have a tough decision to make about what’s right for you moving forward.
Having said that, most of the time selfishness can be fixed if you both recognize your fears of failure and loss, and learn how to get out of them. We believe many of us withdraw when we are triggered by the fear of failure in a relationship, as we feel it’s safer to be alone and protect ourselves, especially if we receive criticism or feedback that is negative.
Your fear of failure may be getting triggered by your wife’s feedback that you are selfish and this might be making you pull back and even become selfish because you are now focused on protecting yourself. When one spouse reacts in fear (which is selfish) it usually triggers the other person's fears and brings out selfishness in them too.
It sounds like your wife may be suffering with fear of loss, as she feels life is unfair and she is not getting the happy marriage she believed she would have. The fear of loss is triggered any time you feel taken from or your expectations are not met. Fear of loss may also be showing up in you, as you think about the impact of your wife’s criticism and the fact you also don’t have the marriage you wanted.
Instead of staying triggered in these fears you must adjust your mindset about your value, knowing it cannot be diminished no matter what your spouse thinks or says about you, and learn to see this situation as a learning opportunity.
In what ways could your wife’s feedback and comment about selfish behavior be your perfect learning opportunity right now? Would you be open to thinking about how you could use this issue to strengthen your marriage and see her feedback as just her way of trying to ask for the love she needs?
Actually, there is a powerful truth here you must understand — a lot of bad behavior is really a request for love. Most of the time this person who is attacking you is really subconsciously begging for validation and reassurance to quiet their fears. It is their fears of failure and loss that are driving the attacks. When you see their behavior accurately, you can handle it in a way that will create connection, not conflict.
Many of us are ill equipped with how to see behavior accurately, communicate and ask for what we need in our marriage in a healthy way. Instead, we create hidden expectations that our spouse is supposed to fulfill. When we don’t communicate them well and they aren’t met, we may end up disappointed and even angry at our spouse. Where does the fault really lie for this? We believe it takes two scared people to create this dynamic, so you both have some work to do.
When expectations aren’t met, resentment begins and the label of "selfish" comes in. Instead of accepting this as a fact in your marriage, here are some things you can do:
1. Make time and space for some loving conversations and ask your partner how you could show up better for them. Let them ask you for what they need. Ask, ‘Honey, in what way can I support you right now and make you feel more loved?’ Ask your spouse this weekly.
2. Make a rule that neither of you will bring up past bad behavior, but focus only on the good behavior you want and need moving forward.
3. Pick one thing to work on doing to love your spouse better this week.
4. When you feel the triggers of self-pity, criticism or fear show up, remember your value can’t change and is the same no matter what and this is just this week’s lesson the universe has provided to give you a chance to practice being more wise and loving. We are on this planet to grow and learn. We believe you and your spouse can help each other grow to become more mature, wise, strong and loving.
You can do this.
Master Coach Kimberly Giles is the author of the book Choosing Clarity and Nicole Cunningham is a Master Coach. There is a free worksheet to guide you through having mutually validation conversations with your spouse on our website, and the Choosing Clarity workbook would also really help.- - - - - -
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