Selfishness in Couples: Narcissism, Lack of Interpersonal Skills, or Something Else?
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas.
Couples commonly talk about feeling unsupported by their partners in the things that are important to them - longing to feel that their spouse is their friend. Lack of support often is seen by the hurt spouse as caused by the other’s selfishness, or lack of caring or empathy.
Though this may be what is going on with some couples, selfish behavior or lack of empathy frequently is caused by hidden hurt and resentment tied to longstanding unresolved marital issues. When hurt and resentment masquerade as selfishness, the prognosis can be hopeful for some couples. Addressing and repairing past conflicts directly in the context of therapy often allows the flow of love in the marriage to be restored.
Nancy had left her career to become a full-time mom. Years later, as she re-entered the work force, she felt liberated and excited, reclaiming a part of herself that had been dormant for years. Joseph had trouble sharing in Nancy’s excitement over her job prospects. In spite of their financial stability, he seemed curiously hung up on how much money she’d be earning and whether he thought the job was a worthwhile use of time. When Joseph couldn’t be happy for her and let her be free, it compounded Nancy’s ongoing feeling that he didn’t really care about her, and she became increasingly hopeless about their marriage.
Impasse Despite Improved Communication and Relational Skills
Joseph was a caring person and loved Nancy but even when he felt supportive of her, or others, he had difficulty expressing feelings and empathy - finding it unnatural, awkward and risky. In therapy, Joseph worked on developing better empathic skills and communication. He focused on improving his ability to tune in to his wife’s feelings and respond to them, for example, noticing her feelings instead of reacting from his own point of view as if the job opportunity was his.
Joseph learned how to express empathy, which dramatically improved his relationship with his children, but this work in therapy did not resolve the impasse in his marriage. Though his behavior and communication was better, Nancy still did not feel he was truly connected with her. It was as if he were going through the motions, but it didn’t reach her and didn’t feel real. Feeling unsupported, empty and alone, she began to conclude that maybe he was incapable of authentic connection.
Unconscious Emotional Barriers at Play
When lack of support and empathy are symptoms of an underlying conflict, improving communication skills and “emotional intelligence” is not the solution alone. In these cases, an unconscious emotional barrier will continue to reveal itself and defeat practical solutions until it is tackled. The roadblock and its cause must be confronted directly and understood, releasing the couple from its hold and allowing tenderness and connection to be restored. Healing occurs as rigid assumptions are relinquished, and replaced by empathic understanding of one another in real time.
In a private session with the therapist, Joseph responded with curiosity of his own to the therapist’s interest in understanding why he was micromanaging Nancy’s job prospects and failing to truly celebrate her excitement. He could see that his concerns about the money she would earn were not really legitimate. But he pointed out that if, in fact, it was now his turn to be paying back what he ‘owed’ Nancy, including taking on more responsibilities at home, she should earn an amount that felt worth his while - just as he had done. This comment revealed that a sense of injustice and powerlessness was driving Joseph’s withholding and rigidity.
The therapist asked Joseph how he would feel if Nancy didn’t believe he actually “owed” her. Would he feel differently about her job if he weren’t obligated to support her but were doing so out of love or wanting her to be happy? “Yes,” he replied, in a genuine way. Even thinking about removing the sense of obligation allowed Joseph to imagine being loving again without keeping score, as he had been prior to the birth of their child.
Nancy did believe that Joseph “owed” her for the years she sacrificed, feeling burdened and alone caring for their baby. This perception was fueled by the assumption that Joseph happily abandoned the family for his work while she gave up her career. In therapy, Nancy learned that Joseph had been unhappy too at that time, pulling away from her because of feeling defeated. Criticized and put down about how he cared for the baby, it seemed that no matter what he did, he never met her standards. He coped by retreating emotionally and seeking refuge through work, where he felt successful. Later, Nancy’s implicit demand for payback further closed his heart to her.
Healing past relational/attachment injuries
• Taking responsibility. Through therapy Nancy and Joseph ultimately recognized the truth about what happened, and that neither escaped unscathed. They both acted out of pain and their own limitations, rather than out of selfish or hurtful intent. When Nancy explained, without anger, how overwhelmed and abandoned she felt at that time, Joseph was able to put himself in her shoes. In a healing moment of authentic connection with Nancy, he became tearful, expressing genuine sorrow and regret for not having been able to find a way to help her.
In turn, Nancy was able to relent from her previous position of blame, recognizing her own role in creating the burden and isolation she endured. She talked openly about how panicked and self-critical she had been about being a good mom, realizing that she projected her own anxieties onto Joseph - and became controlling, critical and contemptuous of him.
• Restoring the balance of power. In letting go of her defensive position, Nancy reassured Joseph that he did not “owe” her anything, acknowledging that she had chosen to be a stay-at-home mom and that she had pushed him away. She also revealed for the first time that she valued Joseph as a dad and envied his easy way with the kids. This dialogue freed the couple from painful views that divided them. As the perception of Nancy’s superiority could be dispelled, Joseph was lifted up and reinstated back into the fold, restoring the balance of power in the relationship essential for mutual connection.
Longstanding hurt and feelings of injustice from past events can show up in couples in the form of a silent barricade that blocks natural connection. When love and forgiveness do not seem possible, compensatory solutions may take over in an attempt to protect oneself or even the score.
In such cases, one spouse may seem selfish, withholding, or incapable of bonding. The other partner, driven by resentment, in turn feels “owed” or entitled. When this happens, the “offending” one is punished - kept in the role of underdog in the relationship, resulting in a perpetual power imbalance and backlash by the disenfranchised partner who reacts by walling off emotionally. This cycle leads to mutual emotional deprivation without resolution - and no one wins. These strategies fail, as do behavioral solutions, never reaching the source of the disconnect.
In this case, Nancy and Joseph were each trapped in their own loneliness - harboring unfounded assumptions that continued to breed blame, grudges, and isolation. But, as they experienced each other’s feelings and vulnerability in therapy, and saw each other in a new way, the emotional barrier between them began to lift. Together they developed a mutually compatible story line about what happened, allowing a clearing where connection and love can occur.
Joseph’s natural generosity returned, and he was able to be more present with his wife in a more heartfelt way, sharing her excitement over new ventures. Nancy, in turn, was more open to letting Joseph in, and came closer to seeing him as the man she had respected, and the man who he had wanted to be.