We humans absolutely LOVE stories about self-sacrifice—heroes or martyrs who sacrifice themselves to rescue others or for the greater good. In film, literature, and mythology, the character who is willing to die on behalf of his or her beliefs or in order to save innocents is about as high ranking as nobility comes. In real-life this translates to admiration for people we categorize as “long-suffering”, whether in service to a high-risk but heroic profession or a challenging relationship; these demonstrations of unselfishness are highly lauded.
Most of us have been taught, from early childhood, that being selfish is wrong. Women are conditioned to put the needs of others before their own; men are conditioned to “carry the weight” of those deemed weaker or dependent. How this often translates in marriage and other committed love relationships is two people doing their best to act in service of the other, with neither getting what they want.
This template we have that women should be emotionally unselfish (prioritize her husband and children’s emotional needs above her own) and men should be physically unselfish (work hard to provide, take physical risks when the situation demands it) is so culturally ingrained that we often, consciously or not, stigmatize couples who don’t conform to it. The high powered businesswoman and the stay-at-home dad still get side-long glances. Couples who choose not to procreate are almost always pressured to reconsider.
The historical precedence of the hunter-gatherer relationship is often misrepresented as macho or male-dominated, when in reality division of labor and power in those societies was very equal. It was the advent of agriculture, when humans started to be able to accumulate resources, that triggered competition and subsequently inequality. The more you were able to accumulate, the more powerful you became—so being “unselfish” in that context got you a whole lot of nothing.
There is something humorous, then, in our condemnation of “selfishness”. Again, we love the perceived nobility of the notion that if all you have in the world is one sandwich, you should give half of it away; but how about if you accumulate enough to have hundreds of sandwiches? Even if you only give half of them away, you have still helped a lot more people than the guy with one sandwich.
So now we apply this to relationships; the truth is, we have glorified the idea of sacrificing for our spouse, kids, extended family, jobs etc. We have made giving up on your soul’s desires to be the “honorable” choice. We have reframed, once you are in a committed relationship, the idea of pursuing your personal goals and dreams as “selfish”.
Yes, we have.
In our culture, we identify a “good man” by his ability to deny his emotional responses (real men suck it up and get the job done) and a “good woman” by her ability to abdicate her personal needs (after everyone else, I come first!). Then we wonder why, when this man and woman join together in a committed relationship, they end up at cross purposes with each other, feeling like they have given up what they want to please, with neither actually being pleased!
Remember the O. Henry story, The Gift of the Magi? For those of you not familiar, it is about a financially challenged young couple who each sell their most prized possession (her hair, his pocket watch) to buy the other a Christmas gift. Of course, the young man buys his wife combs for the hair that she just sold to buy him a chain for his watch.
How romantic, right?
Except now the thing they each loved so much has been replaced with something entirely useless. This is a good thing? Ugh, I say.
The idea that we should be “unselfish” in love is, in my opinion, a very pompous and unhealthy premise. Love requires healthy compromise to be sure, but that “compromise” should NEVER be the things you love and enjoy most in the world. Unselfish love is not about giving up what you want; it is about accepting and encouraging your partner’s desires and dreams as much as they do yours.
It is NOT “selfish” to pursue the things you want in life. Here is where a little “sacrifice” CAN be a good thing; when we make them short term in order to promote long-term success and happiness. When you are in a great relationship, YES, your partner may temporarily “give up” something they want so you can pursue a degree, a promotion or an artistic aspiration.
Temporarily. And once your goal is achieved, you return the favor, if applicable. This is the true benefit of having a partner—you have someone who supports you in going after what you truly want, NOT someone who prevents or discourages you from doing so. If you think “love” is giving up on yourself in favor of another, you really don’t know what love is.
Look, we have been “brainwashed” (for lack of a better word) to think GREAT love requires GREAT sacrifice. I won’t bother listing the zillions of movies and books that have reinforced this (Titanic will do. He’s dead, she spends the rest of her life pining. That sucks, actually.) but honestly, if you have to give up what you love to be with someone you love? That is pretty much the definition of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Anyone who requires you to give up what you love for love does not love the REAL YOU. They are instead attached to a person who might exist if only you were not a musician. (Or intellectual. Or vegan. Or cat owner.) True love does not “love” a future version of you that has given up on yourself; true love is “as is”, and that includes dreams, aspirations, and desires.
Look, “unselfish” love has its applications—a gravely ill spouse, for example—but in the context of two mature adults joining together in a committed relationship? If that relationship is not about nurturing and nourishing the WHOLE you have become, it is not a healthy situation. When you have found “true love” you will know it because you will feel FREE.
True love is NEVER a prison; hell, it is not even a fenced in yard! True love is about accepting and allowing each other as you are, and if “as you are” doesn’t work? It’s not TRUE LOVE.
It’s pretty simple, when you look at it like that, right? Be you; allow your partner to be him or her. And then?
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