Selfishness in Couples: Narcissism, Lack of Interpersonal Skills, or Something Else?
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.
Margolies, L. (2016). Selfishness in Couples: Narcissism, Lack of Interpersonal Skills, or Something Else?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 30, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/selfishness-in-couples-narcissism-lack-of-interpersonal-skills-or-something-else/