For years now women have been told to be more assertive in their relationships, that in the healthiest partnerships, you and your man contribute equally—be it around the house or in bed. But that mind-set can cause one-for-me-one-for-you accounting, which ultimately breeds resentment. "The 'I'll see your stress, and raise it' game is a no-win one," says psychologist Jane Greer, author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship (Sourcebooks). "It's just evidence of selfishness, on both partners' parts." And nothing will tank your romance faster, she warns. We talked to Greer about why it's critical that we quit keeping score and start finding ways to compromise.
MC: Why do you say selfishness ruins relationships?
JG: Everybody thinks that they are right, and they're invested in defending their point and securing their needs, no matter what. So when people enter relationships, the interaction is often positioned as combative and oppositional. This dynamic has become increasingly intense because our culture conditions and reinforces instant gratification over the hard work of getting along. Everyone has become emotionally grabby.
MC: But what if your grabbiness is legit—he wants to get married but you're not ready; you love oral sex but it's not his thing? How does everyone get their needs met without either side feeling as if they're losing themselves?
JG: Start by not taking your partner's behavior personally. It's about his fears and anxieties; it's not about you. He may say, "If you loved me you'd do blank"—but that's not helpful. Instead, you compromise. The willingness to try to please your partner is what matters. If you don't like a penis in your mouth, make it something that's a treat for a birthday or anniversary—but get it in the repertoire.
MC: What if only one partner is willing to try to please?
JG: Most relationships have one person who is a little more dominant than the other. No two people can come first at the same time. It's difficult—you're afraid that if you assert yourself, your guy is going to get angry with you. But if you don't assert yourself, you feel miserable and trapped. So you've got to take a leap of faith, to speak your truth and negotiate. The goal is to find the middle ground, to please your partner and, in turn, be equally pleased by him, which is why you are with him in the first place.
MC: But if selfishness is ruining relationships, should the goal really be for the selfless partner to be more selfish, or for the selfish partner to be less so?
JG: You want to develop your sense that you have a right to meet your own needs—to take care of yourself without feeling guilty or bad. That will immediately push back upon the other person's selfish behavior.
MC: What if we are the ones who do most of the taking? What if we're being selfish because it gets us a whole lot of what we want?
JG: First, you'd be about the first person who walked into my office and admitted to being selfish. Almost all selfish people think other people are selfish because they don't provide absolutely everything really big takers want. Still, my goal is not to show you how selfish you are. It's "let me show you how unhappy your partner is feeling, and if your goal is to please your partner, then you're going to have to change your behavior." There is usually motivation to renegotiate because it's no fun to be tied to a miserable person.