How to be positively selfish in your relationship
This article is part of our summer content series celebrating the concept of being ‘positively selfish’. We’re turning our focus on the self, recognising how a little selfishness can be a positive thing – how it can even promote your personal growth
We hear a lot about how compromise is the golden god of relationships. But there’s a fine line to play here. Give away too much in the name of love, and you’ll fade to a shallow husk of the person you once were.
The best kind of relationship does not lay down conditions or demands (beyond some very obvious deal-breakers). Instead, it allows a framework for two people to operate both independently, and in broad sync with one another.
And while “selfish” is a word bandied around as a negative term in most couples’ rows, a degree of selfishness can be essential to maintaining a balanced, healthy relationship.
Here’s how to use selfishness in the best possible way, to make both you and your partner happy:
Keep separate bank accounts
In years gone by, women sought out “gentlemen of means” to access a world that they couldn’t. Thankfully that’s no longer the case, and we should celebrate by keeping money and love as two completely separate entities (no matter what the make-up of your relationship). Fine if you and your loved one want to have a joint account where you siphon off some of your cash into mutual interests; a mortgage, say, or monthly bills. Fine also if you contribute to this proportionately, based on your income. But never, ever should you get to the point where you assume possession of your amour’s cash; or vice versa.
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The most positively selfish thing you can do in a relationship is keep your own bank account, and safeguard/use that stash however you want. If you two need to support one another through certain periods of life; having kids or going freelance, for example, that’s up to you. You can make arrangements as you go. But true love categorically does NOT mean handing over the credit card, or being told how to spend your own money. Because if you do that, you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of messy power dynamics and it’s simply not worth the price.
Have your own friends
The moment where a loving relationship spills over into coercive control is often marked by a partner’s unhappiness at the time you spend with your own mates. It’s a glaring red flag. So, make the effort to spend time with your own mates – no matter how busy life gets – and don’t let them take second place to your relationship. De-prioritising your friends is not only uncool, it’s also short-sighted: statistically, most friendships will outlive romantic relationships, and they’re a stronger predictor of happiness, too.
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The issue of joint friends also stands under this heading. If you happen to be friends with your partner’s friends, great. But if you don’t, don’t feel obliged to attend every boozy bonding weekend, in the role of someone’s (bored) other half. A friendly face now and again is fine, and nice to do. Yet you don’t *have* to like your partner’s friends, anymore than you have to go to every event together. Keep some separate friends too, make space to see them, and all will be well with the world.
Spend at least two evenings a week apart
Look at the relationships around you and you’ll find the most successful ones are where both halves of the couple do their own thing. And a little bit of distance is crucial to establishing that sense of independence. Gwyneth Paltrow is so keen on this concept that she and her husband currently live apart for some periods of the week; and others are following suit in an effort to “consciously couple”. But since most of us can’t actually afford two homes, the next best step is to carve out space for yourself.
Read more: Why spending time alone makes us happy
Spend a few evenings out each week flexing your own freedom; without care to what your partner wants. You might pursue a passion project like creative writing, head on a pub crawl with pals or even pop to the cinema alone for that French arthouse film your loved one has no interest in seeing. Even if you’re both at home, you don’t have to stay mushily entwined on the sofa. Watch your own TV, get stuck into Red Dead Redemption 2, listen to a podcast; make your own food if you want. As long as you stay communicating with one another, this kind of approach is key to not feeling stifled.
If you have kids, take time for yourself
People very often feel like they have to give everything to their kids; every last iota of blood, sweat and tears. And centuries of gender conditioning means this pressure lands more heavily on women rather than men. Of course, when they first arrive, babies *do* demand 150% of your energy and attention. But at a certain point, it’s OK to step back from the relentless churn of baby-related tasks on occasion; in fact, it’s crucial. You can’t do what you do best without allowing yourself some breathing room, and regaining a sense of who you are outside the context of your little one(s).
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This aspect of being positively selfish is much easier said than done. But essentially, it’s about getting your partner firmly on-board to share the load. You are both allowed time out on your own regularly, and should encourage yourself and each other to do that. Go for a bike ride, or an evening swim. Swing by a farmer’s market and browse entirely alone. Head to a nearby exhibition you’ve been dying to see for ages. Whatever it is, you might not feel it at first; but you need to get into that habit of tapping the things that drive you, or that you truly love, outside the context of work and family obligations. It’s must-have fuel for the soul.
Don’t be afraid to have arguments
Being positively selfish means constantly challenging the parameters of your relationship to check your interests are being upheld. If that sounds a bit clinical, consider how easy it is for your own desires to be eroded in the name of compromise. In relationships, we constantly give ground and make concessions for the sake of keeping the peace. But really, it’s not your job to be a peace-keeper, or have a sunny, happy relationship all of the time. Instead, a good relationship is always evolving; you should be holding one another to account as a natural part of this process.
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You need to be forever questioning the power dynamic of your relationship, and whether the division of labour you have going is fair. Some things are not worth a row about but remember, even petty gripes can easily snowball into large, stormy resentments. So it’s really worth asserting what it is that makes you happy, or not; and expressing that nice and clearly. If that leads to arguments, so be it. What you want or need will not always tee with what your partner wants or needs. Robust, even heated, discussions, on a regular basis can only be a good thing when it comes to finding this balance, and affirming who you are as an individual. Just steer clear of screaming and name-throwing.
Solo travel now and again
By far the most satisfying way to be positively selfish in your relationship – and to various degrees, fulfill all the steps above – is to hit the road by yourself. Travelling alone gives you the rare opportunity to be exactly who you want to be, and do what you want to do, without answering to anyone. However independent your relationship is, if you’ve been in it long-term, there’s likely some things that you’ve forgotten that you enjoy doing alone.
Read more: Do you need to be single to solo travel?
By heading abroad for a week or two, you remind yourself of who you are; outside the confines of your relationship. You prove to yourself what you’re capable of, without always having someone by your side. It’s powerful stuff indeed. And rather than looking inward to your partner the whole time, you’ll meet a whole load of new people; a proven happiness habit that we tend to fall out of as we get older. If you don’t like the idea of going completely alone, you can always join a group of like-minded solo travellers, for an adventure somewhere fresh and unknown. But by taking this leap into new frontiers without your loved one, you can return to your relationship refreshed and revived. In a world where things can get a little same-y, it’s the best possible wake-up call.
Images: Shutterstock, Movie Stills DB, Joshua Ness on Unsplash