Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Self-Loathing and the Paradox of Selfless Love

Can selfless relationships work?

Is there such a thing as a selfless relationship? Can you be in a relationship without asserting your needs and only attending to your partner's? It would be great if you and your partner were so perfectly attuned to each other that each of you fulfills each other's needs without asking, but few relationships are that perfect (as I wrote about in previous posts here and here). No one likes to ask for the things they need—especially if that person has feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing—even if his or her partner wants to know. Can it be enough just to fulfill your partner's needs? Or, if you do suppress your needs, even by your own choosing, do you inevitably end up resenting your partner (unfairly, of course) for not realizing and fulfilling them anyway?

Why would people want to withhold what they need from their partners? It may come from feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, or a deep-rooted humility, such that people don't feel they deserve to have their needs met. It may come from an aversion to creating obligations or expectations, wanting the relationship to develop, grow, and prosper naturally, without either partner pushing in one way or another (for instance, by openly expressing needs). Also, It may come from a nurturing nature, wanting to care for others rather than be cared for. Any of these (and more) may lead people to hold back expressing their needs; in what follows, I'll focus on people with feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing, who simply do not feel their needs merit concern, and feel bad or guilty asserting them.

This may help explain why people with feelings of inadequacy (and their long-suffering partners) often have problems with relationships—they have needs like everybody else, but they're not comfortable asserting them. It may be because they don't feel worthy enough or that their needs are not important, that they shouldn't impose their needs on their partners, or they may even deceive themselves into believing they don't have needs at all. Of course, this frustrates their loved ones; they care about their self-loathing partners, so they want to help them and fulfill their needs, but they often don't know how.

The self-loathers may think they can hide it—and maybe they can, for a while—but their partners will start to wonder why they never mention what they want or what they need, and will pick up on any resentment stemming from unfulfilled needs. If the self-loathing partners in relationships cannot bring themselves to express their needs, then the relationship is likely doomed. Even worse, if the self-loather anticipates this, or knows it is likely based on past experience, he or she may just avoid relationships altogether, perhaps just maintaining casual friendships in which needs need not be so openly expressed.

This all comes back to the question of why we enter relationships in the first place, if not to meet needs (or wants, or desires) of some sort, whether emotional, physical, intellectual, or some combination of these (and more). If that's true, then love is inherently selfish (but not in a bad way); through it, we attempt to find in another person something that we lack. It would be ideal if the person you end up with fulfilled your needs naturally, but perhaps the more important thing is that he or she wants to meet your needs—and to do that, you have to let your partner know what those needs are. The self-loathing person that withholds his or her needs out of selflessness (and an attempt to avoid being selfish) is not being fair to his or her partner, and therefore is actually being selfish, which is the paradox of selfless love.

Everyone wants to be desired and to be needed, so trying to conduct a relationship selflessly (for whatever reason) may very well be hurtful to one's partner, and, in the end, self-defeating. That's yet another paradox—we don't want our partners to be selfish except when it comes to wanting us! Selfless love may seem ideal, but it denies partners what they need—to be wanted

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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