Self-less versus Self-ish

I was listening to my friend vent – again – about her frustrations with a recurring issue which was rearing its ugly head. I wish I could say that it was an unfamiliar complaint or that it was unique to their situation, but sadly it was something I had noticed in some other open relationships.

And it got me wondering – why does it rarely happen with my own open relationship?

Everyone who has had this issue continually speculates it is simply common to all. They blame it on “new relationship energy” or NRE. Or they try to believe it is an element of their own open relationship that is at fault – unique to them.

However, I hear it a lot.

One spouse feels they are continually sacrificing their time with their own spouse, so that their spouse can be with a play partner. This feeling goes from a feeling of sacrifice to a niggling worry that maybe they aren’t as desired. They start worrying something is wrong. They get frustrated that needs are not being met. Communication starts getting harder. And there is a lot of hurt feelings and frustration on both sides.

In the most recent conversation with a friend, there was something that was said that made me realize the issue. It all come down to the suffix to the same word – self. One spouse is SELF-LESS while the other is SELF-ISH. And the constant roles with who plays which part creates this frustration.

In my friend’s case, she is selflessly supporting her spouses desire for experiencing new things – new relationship, new types of play, etc. She keeps the calendar relatively flexible so that he can have dates and such. And he is appreciative. Until…..she needs something from him – and his desire for an experience makes him blind to her need.

When she says “I need cuddle time with you tonight – just you and me at home”. He doesn’t always understand it is a rarely asked for need. She is being self-ish in not wanting to share him at that moment. She needs his time. The problem is he doesn’t always shift to self-less mode and give her what she needs. Instead, he wants to resume the “self-ish” mode and keep his plans the same. His desire overshadows her need, and they both ends up with hurt feelings and bad communications.

In other people, I’ve seen it where both believe they are self-less but in reality, they are both having issues because they are being self-ish. What they want even from what should be self-less acts negates what should be self-less and makes it self-ish.

Let me give my own example of how it usually works with G and me. We will look at a simple – non-open example.

There are certain times of the year where he is stressed by work. Beginning of the year, end of the year, and during grades. During those times, I know he is unable to meet my needs emotionally because work deadlines are what they are. Instead of demanding his time or trying to make him even more stressed, I try to take care of him. I will bring him lunch unexpectedly. Or I will do something in his class that needs to get done that he knows will not happen due to time and priority.

And when I do these things for him, I don’t do it for the acknowledgement. I don’t do it because I will be “the hero”. Those are doing it for self-ish reasons – doing it for what I can get out of it versus giving him a gift from the heart. My joy or satisfaction comes from that moment where I can see his face relax because it is one less stress. The thank you is nice, but the visible response to the gift is the reward.

Put another way, it would be like giving someone a gift and being more rewarded by the thank you note than the genuine joy you see when they open it. Do you give the gift for the thank you note? Or do you give it for that joy you know it gives them in that moment? Do you give it to be “their favorite person ever” because you gave them what they wanted? Or do you give it because you know in your heart it is what they want and you want them to have it regardless of what you get out of it?

It works the same way in an open relationship.

When G wants to schedule a date with his girlfriend, I don’t look at it as he owes me. I don’t look at it was what can I get out of it. I don’t dwell on the sacrifice. I give it because I can give it and because I enjoy watching him get giddy. I enjoy watching his energy. I don’t do it because it is expected. I don’t do it because I want him to say “you are the greatest wife ever”. I do it because I want to give him that gift – because of the look on his face.

When I find I am slipping – when I’m wanting the “greatest wife ever” accolades, I have to ask myself “what do I really need right now?” Do I really need to hear that? Or do I have needs not being met? Usually it is the latter. Then I have to ask – am I articulating it and he is simply choosing his needs over my own? Or am I not being clear in what I need?

Each and every slip-up in our relationship has been due to this issue. I can count these events on one hand – but each time, we have been left with a lasting lesson where we have to do the following:

  • Make sure you are not stuck in self-ish mode. 
  • Make sure you are communicating your needs clearly. 
  • Make sure you are anticipating the needs of your spouse & acting accordingly. 

Just a few weeks ago, G and I had a discussion that could have been worse if we had not learned from the past and adjusted our conversation accordingly.

I have been trying to recharge and recover after many stresses that have left me in need of recovery. He has been supportive of it – but he had a moment where he wanted acknowledgement by me that he was “doing good”. While he could visibly see how his support was having a positive response, he was frustrated. He was feeling his needs were not being meant. And instead of focusing on that, he focused on how he was feeling instead of the real “why he was feeling that way”. He was focused on his self-ish at a time when I was being more self-ish than self-less. And two self-ish people results in a volatile situation.

We both recognized the issue pretty quickly. I gave him the kudos he needed – but I also asked him to be frustrated at the situation rather than me. This request made him realize his frustration was misdirected, so he readjusted accordingly. In the end, we were both in a much better place because we readjusted how we were reacting.

And this concept is what I eventually explained to my friend when she finally wondered aloud what was going wrong. I gave her this advice. I suspect I will be having this talk with her husband soon.

I just don’t want to see them go sideways in a way where it could put their relationship at jeopardy. I have seen it happen with other couples. Where roles get defined in a such a way where fluidity between selfish and self-less is lost. Where one ends up being the full-time giver and the other because the full-time taker. This out of balance in the relationship ends up putting the relationship at risk – and in some cases, causes the end of it.

I can only hope that my two sets of friends figure it out. More joy can be gotten from an open relationship if that happens. And the risk of relationship implosion is reduced.

Here’s the hoping.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Hubman says:

    Very well said Emmy! I hope your friends can figure it out.

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