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Is Your Partner Selfish?

Believe it or not, we can make our partners less selfish.

Key points

  • Negative perceptions in love relationships are usually reciprocal.
  • If you think your partner is selfish, your partner probably thinks something similarly negative about you.
  • On autopilot, everyone is selfish most of the time.

The autopilot brain makes preconscious, automatic judgments and behavior choices, predicting the future based primarily on past perceptions and experience. Most behavior is directed by implicit judgments, conditioned responses, and habits.

Implicit judgments automatically dominate emotional demeanor—body language, muscle tone, facial expressions, and tone of voice. If you regard your partner as selfish, that regard will be apparent in your body even if you never express it verbally.

In the autopilot brain, everyone is mostly selfish. We’re hypersensitive to partners acting selfishly but hardly aware when we are. There are notable exceptions, but unintended selfish behavior by both partners is the rule.

Please understand that insensitivity to our own selfishness is not hypocritical. It owes to normal brain functioning, which, on autopilot, is simply more sensitive to other people’s selfish behavior than our own. The brain records injury we suffer over injury we inflict.

In Relationships, Negative Judgments Are Reciprocal

If you think your partner is selfish, your partner probably thinks something similarly negative about you. Reciprocal negative judgments cause emotional standoffs and power struggles. Blame provokes counter-blaming. Arguments are reduced to disputes about who is worse, with the underlying sophistication of the schoolyard chant, "It takes one to know one!"

How We Make Things Worse

Labeling your partner as selfish (or having a personality disorder) will almost certainly make things worse. Negative labels invoke more unwanted behavior, especially when we convince our partners that they’re selfish. It’s unclear, once you’re labeled selfish, how much selfless behavior is required not to be selfish anymore, so partners labeled "selfish" give up trying.

It may be hard to swallow if you truly believe your partner is a lot more selfish than you, but the only way to get your partner to be less selfish is to be less selfish yourself.

Accurately judging the selfishness (or fairness) of our own behavior requires reflection; it won’t happen on autopilot. In the autopilot brain, everyone is selfish.

We can retrain the autopilot brain, once we give up denial of how selfish we are. The following checklist is the first step in overcoming the denial that blocks personal and relationship improvement.

Selfish Checklist

Selfish partners tend to regard their partners as selfish.

In general, we’re intolerant of qualities in others that we don’t like about ourselves. If you can’t tolerate your partner’s selfish behavior, you are probably more selfish than you think.

My feelings are the standard. You have to think and feel like me.

I’ll dismiss my partner’s feelings, when “I would never feel that way.”

Partners intolerant of disagreement or offended when their partners feel something different from them are insensitive to their own selfishness.

Praise me.

Partners who want praise for specific unselfish acts sense that most of what they do is selfish.

“I saved you half the dessert; why don’t you appreciate it?”

“I took the kids to school; give me some credit.”

I’m the victim here.

A common example occurs the day after an argument. We’ll remember the worst thing our partners said or did in the argument but not what we said or did immediately before it. Autopilot insensitivity and the inherent bias of conscious recall make us feel like victims. Selfish partners stick to their autopilot judgments and resist more realistic reflective judgments.

“Mine!” and “No!” My way or no way.

“Mine!” and “No!” are the favorite two words of toddlers, because the toddler brain is egocentric. It’s cute when a toddler says it. Not so cute when adults do.

Make Things Better by Engaging Reflection

Accurately assessing our own selfishness requires reflection. Most people get defensive—not reflective—when accused or labeled. To make things better, you must engage the reflective brain.

Ask your partner:

“Do you think I’m being fair?”

“How can we be fairer to each other?”

Challenge Your Implicit Negative Judgments

To counteract the inherent bias of implicit negative judgments, look for evidence that contradicts them. Think of behaviors of your partner that are fair and considerate.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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