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The Selfish Spouse/Relative Healing


"The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort, and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish," John Paul II.

Selfishness has been described as one of the major enemies of married love and of love within the family. This description is psychologically correct because selfishness, while falsely appearing to have many benefits, actually turns the person in upon himself/herself, thereby interfering with healthy self-giving which is essence of marital love.  Subsequently, this personality weakness creates significant pain and suffering in marriages and families. It is a major cause of marital anger, permissive parenting, addictive behaviors, infidelity, separation and divorce. Unless it is uncovered and addressed, selfishness will lead spouses to treat loved ones as objects and not as gifted persons.

The second chapter in my new book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Spouses uncovers selfish marital behaviors, describes the harm they cause and outlines a plan for healing.

Also, the book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009) by psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell documents  the severe damage being caused by narcissism to western culture.

Aaron Kheriaty, M.D. in the department of psychiatry, at University of California, Irvine, has written an outstanding review of The Narcissism Epidemic and of this conflict, .

In addition, Jean Twenge's 2007 study of almost 17,000 college students revealed that two thirds of them scored high on a measure of narcissism which was an increase of 30% over the past twenty years. Dr. Twenge commented that narcissistic people are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short lived, are at greater risk for infidelity, lack consistent emotional warmth, exhibit game-playing and dishonesty and manifest overly controlling and violent behaviors.  These behaviors in young adults are often fostered by a highly prevalent permissive parenting style.

The Psychological View of Marriage and Selfishness

The newer, prevailing cultural view of marriage differs radically from the traditional, Catholic understanding of the sacrament of marriage and contributes to the growth of selfishness in spouses and of marital conflicts.   Dr. Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, has written about these contrasting views of marriage, "In the new psychological approach to marriage, one's primary obligation was not to one's family but to one's self; hence, marital success was defined not by successfully meeting obligations to one's spouse and children but by a strong sense of subjective happiness in marriage -- usually to be found in and through an intense, emotional relationship with one's spouse.

The 1970s marked the period when, for many Americans, a more institutional model of marriage gave way to the "soul- mate model" of marriage.  Of course, the soul-mate model was much more likely to lead couples to divorce court than was the earlier institutional model of marriage. Now, those who felt they were in unfulfilling marriages also felt obligated to divorce in order to honor the newly widespread ethic of expressive individualism,

This newer psychological view of marriage predisposes couples to selfishness, the major enemy of marital love and a lack of fulfillment and happiness that is found in self-giving.  Subsequently, serious marital conflicts regularly develop. 

The church presents marriage as a sacrament that is supported by the Lords love and grace and requires cheerful self giving, and openness to children according to God's will, and sacrifice.  John Paul II  has enriched the understanding of marital love in Love and Responsibility. He presents in his writing the importance of giving to romantic love, to the marital friendship, and to betrothed love, which includes, but is more than sexual intimacy. In betrothed love the spouse surrenders himself/herself to the other so that the spouse no longer thinks primarily "me" but "we."

This oneness and flow of love between a husband and wife in some ways is to model after the love and the openness within the heart of God, the Trinity.  John Paul II wrote, “God is revealed in the communion between man and woman, for this communion images the love that God himself is.”  Letter to Women,7.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an excellent section on marriage which can be enormously helpful in understanding marriage and in  protecting spouses and children from the harmful effects of selfishness.

The Recognition of Selfishness

The recognition of the character weakness of selfishness is a struggle for most people. Fortunately, selfishness can be identified and resolved through hard work, growth in a number of virtues, particularly generosity and self-denial, and faith when appropriate.  Unfortunately, many spouses and children develop a sense of superiority and pride from their selfishness which blocks their willingness to address this serious personality weakness.

Please rate yourself and your spouse on the following selfishness checklist which has helped many couples pinpoint this common source of stress in marriage and family life.

  • Lack of self-giving

  • Failure to attend to the martial friendship and romantic love

  • Treatment of one’s spouse as a sexual object

  • Preoccupation with oneself and a failure to think “we” rather than “me.”

  • Lack of respect

  • Overly controlling behaviors

  • Overreactions in anger

  • Failure in treating one’s spouse as one’s best friend

  • Failure to wish the best for one’s spouse

  • Weakness in giving praise

  • Excessive anger when everything doesn't go as expected

  • Insistence on having one’s own way

  • Strong desire to do what one’s feelings urge one to do

  • Focus on one’s own happiness and not one one’s spouse’s happiness

  • Tendency to avoid responsibility in some major area of life

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance

  • Loss of kindness and thoughtfulness

  • Immature and excessive comfort-seeking behaviors

  • Obsession with working out, physical appearance and possessions

  • Controlling behaviors

  • Excessive self-indulgence

  • Blind ambition for success

  • A focus on the impression one produces rather than on one’s work

  • Loss of faith

  • Lack of motivation to resolve marital conflicts

  • Lack of openness to God’s will regarding the number of children

  • Lack of a sense of oneness and shared mission with one’s spouse

  • The failure to correct children and one’s spouse

  • Lack of sacrificial giving

  • Use of pornography

  • The use of hormonal contraceptives.

Selfishness Checklist

Copyright © 2017  Richard Fitzgibbons

Increasing Selfishness in the Culture

A number of book have described the growing selfishness in the present culture. In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch describes how the past provides a framework for judging contemporary behavior as good or bad. The loss of connection to the past & disregard for the future facilitates narcissistic self-indulgence.  Robert Bellah in his book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (1985) describes how people have come to forget their ancestors and also their descendants, as well as isolating themselves from their contemporaries. Finally, Dr. Paul Vitz in Psychology as Religion: the Cult of Self-Worship,1977 & 1994, identifies the basic anti-Christian significance of cultural narcissism. He comments that the self has become the absolute center of values.

Narcissism results in a sense of psychological entitlement and a preoccupation with one's own rights. This turning inward and self-obsession then leads individuals to overestimate the amount that is owed to them

Also, the recent books Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before, Twenge,J., 2006, and The Price of Privilege:How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, Levine, M., 2006, relate the serious problems associated with selfishness, particularly unhappiness.

Disorders Associated with Selfishness

A 2008 study of over 34,000 individuals (Stinson, F.S., et al) demonstrated that numerous disorders are associated (comorbid) with narcissism, particularly in men.  They include alcohol dependence, drug dependence, mood and anxiety disorders and other personality disorders.  Also, there were significant associations with bipolar I disorder (mania), post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.  In our clinical experience episodes of excessive anger, including intermittent explosive disorder, are also associated with selfishness. In childhood many of these selfish individuals began to demonstrate their excessive anger through strong oppositional defiant behaviors, particularly when they could not have their own way or control others.

Enablers of Selfishness

These include:

  • permissive parents

  • selfish friends and peers

  • parents and coaches pushing excessive time in sports

  • "self-esteem" education

  • failure to educate in virtues

  • media/the culture

  • materialism and moral relativism

  • university faculties and presidents who enable the hookup culture

  • those who fail to form consciences

  • loss of the sense of the sacred

  • the contraceptive mentality.

Now we will move onto an example of the healing of the conflicts and anger in the selfish spouse from Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope.

The Selfish Spouse

One of the major causes of excessive anger in marriages is the result of narcissistic conflicts in a spouse. These individuals regularly engage in very controlling behaviors and then overreact in anger if they cannot have their own way.

Charles, a 32-year-old married father of three children and a successful professional, manifested periodic explosive anger in his marital relationship particularly when his needs were not met immediately. Charles was overly demanding, insensitive, self-preoccupied and he had difficulty in giving himself to his wife, Kimberly. As the oldest of two children, he was always his mother's favorite, and according to his wife, he had always been spoiled. In addition, Kimberly believed that her mother-in-law had never accepted her and she found her to be intrusive in the marriage.

In marital therapy it was pointed out to Charles that he manifested a number of narcissistic personality traits that predisposed him to excessive anger. He was highly resistant to therapy and attempted to blame all the marital problems on his wife. It was suggested to him that when he felt extremely angry he should try to act in a more mature and giving manner and to think about forgiving his wife.

Kimberly was an intelligent, giving wife and mother. She was highly committed to making her marriage work. She came to realize that her major emotional conflict was that of being an enabler to her husband�s narcissistic behavior and by doing that, she was damaging their marriage. She embarked on a course of healthy assertiveness with her husband. For a number of months the tensions intensified in their relationship to the point that Charles threatened to divorce her. She viewed this threat as highly manipulative and challenged him to proceed. At the same time Kimberly tried to forgive Charles regularly for all the hurts of the past caused by his narcissistic behavior even before he made a commitment to try to change. She also tried to work at forgiving her mother-in-law in order to protect herself from the damaging effects of her own resentment toward her.

The possibility of divorce created enormous stress and anxiety for Charles and motivated him to work on his narcissistic anger. When angry, he began to employ forgiveness exercises. He came to understand that he had developed strong narcissistic tendencies because of his childhood and adolescent relationship with his mother. He worked at trying to forgive his mother for spoiling him and for depending too much upon him as a source of happiness in her life. He apologized to Kimberly and asked for her forgiveness and trust. Charles' impulsive and explosive behavior diminished slowly through the use of past forgiveness exercises with his mother.

Unfortunately, many narcissistic spouses are reluctant to change and their marriages end. Some individuals would rather give up their spouse and children than give up their self-indulgent behaviors.

How Selfishness Harms Marital/Family Love:

It can lead to

  • an inability to maintain a healthy loving relationship

  • strong feelings of loneliness and sadness in spouse and children

  • a poor marital friendship

  • failure to seek the happiness and good for one's spouse

  • poor marital communication

  • emotional harm to children because of difficulty in healthy giving to them

  • a marked weakening in the ability to trust which is the foundation for loving

  • substance abuse or pornography

  • unhappiness at holidays, birthdays or special family events

  • an unwillingness to work on resolving marital difficulties

  • a lack of faith

  • unstable self-esteem

  • permissive parenting

  • lack of respect for one's spouse

  • mistrust in the family members and leads to anxiety

  • weakness in self-giving to a spouse and children

  • regular overreactions in anger

  • resentment in regard to self-giving to a spouse and children

  • excessive love of self to the disdain of spouse and children

  • immature behaviors and weak leadership in the family

  • a permissive parenting style

  • personal comfort as a major goal in life

  • infidelity, separation and divorce

  • alienation in the parent child relationship

  • a materialist mentality

  • the contraceptive mentality

  • withholding children from grandparents and other relatives.

Marital Communication and Selfishness

Selfishness is one of the major obstacles to marital communication and thereby harms the marital friendship.  This personality conflict results in a spouse manifesting a number of weaknesses including failing to listen, trying to dominate the conversation, failing to respect and appreciate the views of one's spouse, speaking in a critical and angry manner and competing verbally.  A daily commitment to grow in virtues, which is described below, can lead to a remarkable improvement in spousal communication and in the marital friendship.

Internet Pornography Addiction and Selfishness

We have found that in our clinical work the most common cause of internet pornography use in married men is selfishness.  Most of these men were overly indulged by one or both parents and have have a long history of comfort seeking behaviors.  Many are surprised when their narcissism is identified as their major character conflict which drives their compulsive pornography use. 

However, a number of spouses are drawn to internet pornography, not because they were spoiled, but as a result of not receiving enough love and affection in parental relationships when young.  While their spouses' love does provide comfort, it cannot make up for a lack of affection in their childhood and in adolescence.  This emotional pain can then lead to anger and to selfishness, often arising from a sense of entitlement because they felt cheated when young.

Marital Infidelity and Selfishness

Narcissism is a leading cause of marital infidelity. Selfishness turns in a spouse so much upon himself or herself that this spouse fails to see and to appreciate the goodness, gifts and beauty in one's spouse.  The narcissistic spouse then solely blames the husband and wife for difficulties in the marriage.  This thinking often is used to portray oneself as a victim and, then, later to rationalize adultery and divorce.  Other common emotional causes of marital infidelity are loneliness, weakness in confidence, excessive career stress with a lack of balance, a controlling spouse, and excessive anger with a desire to punish the spouse.

Selfishness in the Early Years of Marriage

A growing number of young couples are experiencing intense, divisive pressure in their relationship after the birth of their child. One of the most common reasons for this reaction, in addition to the loss of sleep, is that children push a person to the limit in regard to the ability to give. The unlimited self-giving babies require from parents can result in the emergence of selfish personality traits in a parent. Then this person may resent giving, become very irritable and misdirect this anger at a spouse or even the child. Selfishness markedly impairs the ability to accept the sacrificial loving required in raising children and in sustaining a loving marital relationship. 

Selfishness Toward Children

A growing number of young couples experience intense, divisive pressure in their relationship after the birth of their child. One of the most common reasons for this reaction, in addition to the loss of sleep, is that children push a person to the limit in regard to the ability to give. The unlimited self-giving babies require from parents can result in the emergence of selfish personality traits in a parent. Then this person may resent giving, become very irritable and misdirect this anger at a spouse or even the child. Selfishness markedly impairs the ability to accept the sacrificial loving required in raising children and in sustaining a loving marital relationship.

Unfortunately, selfishness is impacted all the helping professions including medical pediatrics. As a result today many pediatricians are recommending that parents not respond to a child’s cries at night but rather allow a child to self-sooth. Such advice ignores the needs of a child for comforting, protective love in order establish secure parental relationships and basic trust.

How to Help One's Spouse Recognize and Address Selfishness

The first step is to identify that one's spouse has been engaging in selfish behaviors which is not always readily apparent. Many people state that they knew there were serious conflicts in their marriages but it took them a long time to identity selfishness as their basic marital conflict. Some spouses came to this realization in a discussion of marital issues with friends, others through a deeper understanding and some completing the selfishness checklist on this site.  Not infrequently, after identifying this serious marital conflict spouses may be very angry with the selfish spouse and with themselves for not identifying and discussing this problem earlier or for essentially enabling the selfish behaviors, sometimes for many years.  Then engaging in forgiveness is essential so that when a correction is given it is not done in anger. Some spouses find themselves discovering resentment toward the parents of their spouse who enabled or even supported the development of selfishness.

After the conflict is uncovered and forgiveness is used, the next step is to communicate the belief that selfishness is a major difficulty in the marriage.  In our clinical work a spouse may present the completed selfishness checklist while others may discuss all the behaviors which demonstrate selfishness.  Next a request is made honestly face, admit and then address this weakness. 

Not infrequently, spouses are highly offended and angry because this weakness is identified.  This response is not surprising since all of us have difficulty in facing our weaknesses.  However, one should remain firm in asking for a change in the selfish behaviors regardless of a spouse's sense of being offended or angry.  Since all of us struggle with selfishness, a spouse could state, "Look let's make a deal. I'll work on my selfishness and you work on yours."

The offended spouse has to be careful not to permit the selfish spouse to control since many of them have this weakness or to enable ongoing selfish behaviors. The role of faith has been helpful here in regard to praying for the courage and trust to address this issue and to remain firm in asking for a change in the selfishness.

A discussion of the long term negative consequences of selfishness can also be beneficial in motivating a spouse to work on this personality conflict. These serious difficulties were described earlier in this chapter.

If the selfish spouse is unwilling to admit and to address this serious obstacle to marital self-giving, the other spouse may benefit from taking some of the following steps:

  • daily try to understand and to forgive this spouse

  • continue to recommend growth in virtues for the good the marriage and the children

  • recommend marital therapy with a mental health professional who can identify and develop a treatment program for selfishness rather than enable this character weakness

  • correct selfish behaviors

  • discourage contact with narcissistic friends and family members

  • consult with a lawyer to apply pressure for change

  • suggest marital separation if the selfishness is very severe and abusive and the spouse is unwilling to change

Many narcissistic spouses only reluctantly agree to face this major character weakness under the pressure of the threat of divorce. Fortunately, in our clinical experience, the recommendations above often lead to intensive work on the marriage and not to separation.

Recovery from Selfishness

Although many people believe that it is not possible to overcome serious personality weaknesses, research and clinical experience demonstrate that excessive selfishness can be overcome. 

In 1995 a very encouraging study from the Harvard Medical School was published which demonstrated significant decrease in the overall level of pathological narcissism in the area of interpersonal relations and reactiveness at follow-up with 60% of the subjects no longer reaching the cutoff score for the diagnosis. However, a high level of narcissism in interpersonal relationships was associated with absence of change at follow up. (Ronningstam, E., et al., 1995, Changes in pathological narcissism. Amer. J. Psychiatry 152:253-7.)

In our experience it is possible to overcome this serious character weakness particularly if the person is committed to grow in virtues and can employ faith in the healing process. Pope Benedict has written about the challenge of overcoming selfishness in Jesus of Nazareth.  He wrote, "In this world, marked by sin, the gravitational pull of our lives is weighed by the claims of the I and the self. These chains must be broken to free us for a new love that places us in another gravitational field where we can enter new life," Jesus of Nazareth, 2007, pp.193-94, New York: Doubleday.

Selfish individuals have great difficulty in changing their behaviors, particularly in regard to giving up their need to control. In many marriages it is only after the threat of marital separation or actual separation that the person is finally motivated to work on changing the harmful communication style, marked by a profound lack of respect, and selfish behaviors. Fortunately, if the selfish spouse commits himself/herself to work on growth in virtues and self-mastery, this severely damaging personality weakness can be healed.  In our practice we estimate that approximately 30% of those with this conflict are not willing to give up their compulsive need to control and dominate others by through their immature behaviors and communication style.  We often wish we could refer such spouses or children to a 28 day inpatient selfishness rehabilitation program. 

The Role of Virtues

A daily commitment to try to make one's spouse and children happy and to be more giving is of great value in breaking the selfish behavioral and thinking patterns in married life.

The selfish spouse can experience significant healing and more fulfillment if a commitment is made daily to engage in the hard work of growing in the following virtues:

  • generosity

  • responsibility

  • temperance

  • self-control

  • courtesy

  • kindness

  • orderliness

  • love

  • self-denial

  • humility

  • service to others

  • patience

  • solidarity

  • manliness with an understanding of being a protector and a leader

  • forgiveness

  • meekness

  • faith

Since selfishness results in a strong tendency to be overly independent, a decision to more open, sharing and giving to a spouse can be effective in breaking the chains of independence.

The Role of Faith

This video presents the benefits of faith in addressing selfishness,

In Character Strength and Virtues (2005) Peterson and Seligman have demonstrated in their factor analytic work that spiritual faith is a major dimension of a healthy character. Also, C. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at the Washington University in St. Louis in his research and book, Feeling Good: The Science of Well Being, (2004), has shown that spirituality is an important dimension of character that contributes to well-being. His empirical findings show that character traits that measure faith, hope and charity are all interdependent and synergistic in making a person feel good.

In the early years of marriage a major difficulty today is the difficulty in accepting the daily contradictions and crosses. Many young adults have been overly indulged by their parents which damages their ability to deal with suffering in marital life.

The following aspects of the Catholic faith are beneficial in the serious struggle to overcome the serious personality conflict of selfishness:

  • a daily examination of conscience on self-giving and other virtues

  • the use of the sacrament of reconciliation

  • meditation on becoming more loving and giving like Christ

  • reception of the Eucharist for growth in all virtues, especially love

  • reading and studying Pope John Paul II's books, Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body

  • spiritual direction

  • prayer for the graces in the sacrament of marriage.

One saint, St. Josemaria Escriva, wrote about the unhappiness associated with selfishness, “The limited, miserable happiness of the selfish man, who withdraws into his ivory tower, into his shell, is not difficult to attain in this world. But the happiness of the selfish person is not lasting. For this false semblance of heaven, are you going to forsake the happiness which will have no end?", The Way, n. 29.

John Paul II and Marital Selfishness

John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation, Letter to Families, in the year of the family (1994,) described the emergence of this conflict after the birth of children. He wrote, "The children born to them (the married couple), and here is the challenge, should consolidate that covenant, enriching and deepening the conjugal communion of the father and mother. When this does not occur, we need to ask if the selfishness which lurks even in the love of man and woman as a result of the human inclination to evil is not stronger than this love. Married couples need to be well aware of this, n.7. "

He also wrote in regard to the size of Catholic families, "Families today have too little "human" life. There is a shortage of people with whom to create and share the common good; and yet that good, by its nature, demands to be created and shared with others: bonum est diffusivum sui: "good is diffusive of itself." The more common the good, the more properly one's own it will also be: mine\yours\ours. This is the logic behind living according to the good, living in truth and charity. If man is able to accept and follow this logic, his life truly becomes a "sincere gift, n.9."

As Catholic spouses grow in understanding the sacrament of marriage and make progress growing in virtues and in faith, they come to more fully enjoy and find fulfillment in giving themselves to their husbands and wives and children.  The weakness of selfishness can often be resolved, but a great deal of patience, humility and fortitude are needed on the healing journey.

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