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Selfishness in Couples: Narcissism, Lack of Interpersonal Skills, or Something Else?

Selfishness in Couples: Narcissism, Lack of Interpersonal Skills, or Something Else?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.

Selfishness in Couples: Narcissism, Lack of Interpersonal Skills, or Something Else?

Lynn Margolies, Ph.D.

Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow, and has completed her internship and post-doc at McLean Hospital. She has helped people from all walks of life with relationship, family, life problems, trauma, and psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions. Dr. Margolies has worked in inpatient, outpatient, residential and private practice settings. She has supervised others, and consulted to clinics, hospitals, universities, newspapers. Dr. Margolies has appeared in media -- on news and talk shows, and written columns for various publications. Dr. Margolies is currently in private practice in Newton Centre, MA. Visit her website at

APA Reference
Margolies, L. (2018). Selfishness in Couples: Narcissism, Lack of Interpersonal Skills, or Something Else?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.