Dear Divorcee: The Litmus Test

Dear Divorcee,

I wonder if it is common for both parties in a relationship to feel the other is selfish.  Any quick litmus test to find who is to be blamed?



First off, I have to say I’m so appreciative to D for writing. It takes a lot of guts to write to a complete stranger for advice, and I’m really happy my readers trust me enough to write something so personal. Especially since there’s so much y’all don’t know about me, this stranger you’re asking for advice.

One thing I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned before is my complete and absolute inexperience when it comes to romantic relationships. The one and only serious relationship that I had ended in divorce after years and years of struggle. Did I think during those years of fighting that Herr Lederhosen was selfish? Beyond selfish, he was egotistical, egocentric.

In his eyes, I was just as awful. And most of the time, when he called me these words, I believed him. Not only believed him, I believed these words to be something awful. Like you, D, I confused selfishness with something else, something entirely negative and unhelpful. But truly, there is nothing bad about selfishness, about thinking about yourself. It’s necessary to survival.

Show me any person in any relationship who is completely selfless and I’ll ask when they applied for sainthood. Because no one, ever, is entirely selfless. It’s a myth, and a destructive one, that you shouldn’t be selfish in your life or in your relationship. In order for you to live, to experience those things meant for you to experience, you have to be able to both know yourself and to express your needs. To think about yourself. That’s what being selfish is. Knowing who you are, who this self is, knowing what you need and want and also knowing what your boundaries are. Then setting those boundaries and sticking to them. That is being selfish and that is not bad.

I remember in one terrible blowout argument, after I told the Herr to get out and never come back, he opened that door with tears in his eyes and the look on his face hit me: “I am so selfish. I cannot continue in this marriage and for that, I am choosing myself over my partnership. How egotistical.” I felt awful. Still, I said to him, just as he was walking out the door: “I’m sure you can make someone else very happy. It’s just not going to be me.”


Not only the statement, but also the revelation… that I was putting my own needs for happiness ahead of our needs as a couple. It’s a falsehood that when we marry, we become first person plural and lose the first person singular. This becomes especially troubling for women when children come into a relationship. Moms often lose the “I” replacing it with “Mom” when really, once kids are involved, women especially need to be selfish, to remember their I. They need to get over the notion that they are sacrificing every part of themselves for the greater good of the family and get on with the selfishness required to maintain their happiness. That’s another story, though.

For every person, an acceptable level of selfishness in a partner is different, but that doesn’t matter, not if you know your partner well and you can agree on what her needs are and find ways to accommodate those needs without putting your own needs in danger. It’s called compromise and compromise comes when you are both selfish and still find ways to be together, to accommodate each others’ needs. Often, the problem we attribute to selfishness is a childish way of saying, “Me first. I want you to acknowledge my needs before your own.” The trouble comes when, in our partnership, those needs haven’t been made clear. And that’s most often what happens: our partners don’t often know what our needs are and how to accommodate them because we ourselves don’t know what our needs are or how to communicate them. Not until we’re in the midst of a battle, each accusing the other of being selfish.

What I needed and need from my relationship and my life most is to be happy. I need to write and need to work but I also need my alone time and my space. I need people in my life who are supportive and encouraging. I need you, as my partner or my friend, to understand that I don’t like to go out at night very often but when I do want to go, I really will have fun. I need stability, regularity, to be able to rely on you if you say you’ll do something. If you cancel on me too frequently or insist that I go to bars with you or beg me for attention when I am in writing mode or act like a moody son-of-a-bitch, then I have to be selfish and choose to not be around you. I have to put my needs ahead of our relationship because without these needs being met, I won’t be happy. And that’s my number one need: to be happy.

So my litmus test for you, D, is to test how well you know yourself. Make a list, what do you need, from yourself, from your partner, from your relationship. Think about it realistically — how can you get these things? Do you set aside one day to write without interruptions? Or do you tell your spouse, hey I don’t feel like going to the bar but dinner might be nice? And then you ask your partner to do the same. Do it at a time when you’re not fighting. Ask her, what do you need? How can I best accommodate that? And then be okay when she says, yo I need you to give me some space right now so I can clear my head. Know that these requests aren’t always about you, that your spouse is being selfish and accept that that’s okay.

Because in the grand scheme, the best way to view this word as if it were two self ish. Like just a little bit of self, not the whole way. Does that make sense?

And finally, to the blame part, I have this to say. In German, there is a word: blamieren. It’s a false friend for most English speakers. We would automatically substitute blamieren when we want to say blame. Ich blamiere dich. But that’s not right. The word for blame, vorwerfen, literally translates to “throw something at,” which is more apt. When I say, ich blamiere dich, I’m not saying, I’m throwing something at you (in this case, fault). Instead, I’m saying “I embarrass you.” And I think that although literally false, it’s technically true. Blaming someone is embarrassing. It’s shrugging off your own role in the communication that’s happening, when really, both of you are at fault. Always. That’s how it is in a relationship. It takes two to tango. And two to argue. And if your arguments are repeatedly doing that, repeatedly searching for blame, I’d say stop throwing it (fault) around. Just like you can’t strike out if a ball isn’t thrown, you can’t take the blame if it isn’t thrown. Stop the argument. It’s unresolvable.


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