In the middle of a heated conversation recently, someone told me I was selfish—that my focus on my needs over theirs in the context of the specific situation was utterly, maliciously selfish.
This is hardly the first time I’ve been the target of that allegation. Honestly, I’ve been known to tout my sometimes selfish nature as both a warning and a badge of honor.
My friends will mostly tell you I am anything but. They remind me all the time to take time for me, to step away from caring for my sons and my household and my co-workers and to focus on Stephanie for a change. I often lead 15-hour-days of taking care of everything and everyone else. The last three years with divorce and kids and school and work (after twelve as a full-time stay-at-home mom) have certainly been no exception. Those long days have often come at the expense of my self-care and physical health.
But sometimes a situation comes to a point where there is no compromise, where one person gets their way and the other doesn’t. Sometimes two people’s needs are equally valid. And if they are truly needs, then both people deserve to get their way.
(Okay, maybe no one deserves to get their way. I mean, it seems like the only thing we truly deserve as humans is an eventual death. That seems callous and a bit existentially simplistic, and it’s a topic of discussion for another day.)
But what do you do when you need something and the other person needs something utterly dichotomous, just as strongly and validly as you? What if that person is your child? What if that person is your significant other or your best friend?
At what point is your demand to have your need met just selfish or a matter of self-preservation?
This comes on the heels of a week on Love and Sexuality in my Psychology of Women class. The discussion question for the week had to do with our thoughts on the nature of love and how you know you’ve achieved it.
Some of my classmates wrote about love as a force of nature, as a divine law that makes everything perfect. Some wrote of their misunderstanding of love, their perceptions skewed by growing up in emotionally dysfunctional and abusive homes. Someone wrote of how her love for her cats is what she imagines love for children would be like.
To me, there's the affection we call love, this amalgam of electrical impulse and brain chemistry and experience and voodoo that makes us attach to other people. We are social creatures by nature, and attachment is necessary for survival. The more complex the organism, the more complex its needs.
But there's also the verb of love, which is dependent upon acting in the best interest of and actively caring for another person. It often has its origins in the affection, but they are not interdependent.
I used to think that love was unconditional, that once you felt that strongest of affections for another person that you'd feel it no matter what. I eventually learned that I was mostly wrong. I think the only unconditional human love is the love of a parent for a child. We are wired to adore those crazy creatures no matter what, so that they will grow into adulthood and propagate the species further. When they are very young, I think children love their parents unconditionally, but the realizations in adolescence that our previously-divine parents are now flawed humans strains that love. Eventually they have moments of loathing and hating their parents, as they strike out independently. (I'm not sure adolescents aren't so difficult so that parents aren't so sad when they leave the nest.) Romantic love seems unconditional at its onset, but it will plainly die if it's not carefully tended.
I think you know you feel love for someone when their best interest is more important to you than your own. You show that love by acting in their best interest.
Given my history, I am very (hyper-) sensitive to the idea of self-sacrifice for the people I love. I really will go above and beyond for those I cherish, and I have often done it to the point of losing myself in that fray. Muchness and Light began in 2010 as my way to work through the process of finding Stephanie after having lost her to the morass of motherhood and wifedom and the lifetime of regret I’d eaten.
In feeling the affection of love for someone, I will usually do and give everything possible to show that love, to make their life comfortable and to support their happiness. I gave up long ago on trying to make people happy. (Learning that I am not in control of other people’s emotions is also part of the history of Muchness and Light.)
So what does it mean if I hit a point where I have nothing left to give? If I am so exhausted, so depleted from enacting the verb that I have no more of the noun to give? If a relationship is so one-sided, in my experience, it crosses the line to unhealthy or co-dependent or even enabling.
If I need replenishment but the other person needs more energy from me in order survive or thrive, which of us gets our need met and which goes unfulfilled? If that other person is someone I love deeply, do I love them less if I refuse to sacrifice the core of myself in unhealthy ways in order to support their happiness?
For me, my children are the only people who deserve that sacrifice from me, but they’re in adolescence now, and how I show that love and what I should be willing to do for them is changing. Parenting is not about getting your kids to do what you want them to do—that’s unhealthy control. Parenting is about teaching them to be resourceful and self-sufficient and to be able to make the best, healthiest decisions for themselves, especially when faced with choices that may not be best for you as a parent—or for anyone else they love.
And if I give so much of myself that there is nothing left of myself to give, I’m no damn good to anyone. That’s unhealthy for me. That’s unhealthy for my children. And, quite honestly, it’s unhealthy for the person whose needs I am unable to meet without what feels like self-obliteration.
It seems simple enough, but it’s a catch-22, for sure. But I have to remind myself that sometimes I have to make the best, healthiest decision for me, even if it’s not best for someone I love.