We so often hear about the importance of maintaining individuality when we’re in a relationship. And there’s something to that – a codependent relationship can quickly spiral into unhealthy behaviors. Yet, we also can’t strive for complete independence: after all, being in a relationship means being part of a team. In this piece, experts from The Marriage Recovery Center give their insights on overcoming selfishness in relationships without falling into codependence.
Codependence vs Independence
We have all heard about the perils of codependence — losing ourselves in others. We’ve read and practiced the art of setting boundaries, proclaiming our individuality. These are good insights and strategies that work well for us — mostly — except when they don’t. The unspoken story is the flip side of this equation. I’ll share a story that happened to me just this past week.
James and Sarah are in their early forties, deeply in love. They are newly married, with each being their second marriage. Having been in previous relationships, they’ve learned how to live independently amd developed patterns of living and routines they are reluctant to give up.
“I am who I am,” James announced stoically at the beginning of their work with us. “I told her that I like who I am and don’t really want to change.”
Sarah looked down momentarily, indicating her disappointment. “I thought you came into this relationship wanting to really be with someone,” she said with obvious irritation. “You can’t keep ‘doing your own thing’ and have a relationship with me.”
“I don’t see why not,” he said emphatically. “I’m willing to give some ground, but again, I like me. I don’t want to give me up. I’m willing to allow you to be you. Can’t you let me be me?”
James and Sarah eyed each other, seeming to wait for the other to give some ground. “Can’t you see that giving up some of your independent activities will make for a stronger us?” Sarah said, continuing to develop her “case.” “You can still do your thing, but I want you to make more time for me.”
“I make enough time for you,” he said. “I really want to hang onto some of my friends and do some things independent of you. I’m not going to give up me to be with you.”
I watched Sarah and James jockey for position, awkwardly trying to maintain their individuality while also attempting to merge their two worlds. Both clung tenaciously to their old ways of doing things, their previous friends, their previous lifestyle, reluctant to make the changes necessary to fully merge their worlds. They seemed frightened of letting go of their previous life to fully enter into this new life and lifestyle that both said they wanted.
Both Sarah and James were struggling where I see many struggle — with overcoming selfishness in relationships. More precisely, they were failing to grasp the concept of positive codependence — moving from me to we in a way that retains some individuality, but sees the benefit of serving the other and growing with them.
Setting Shared Goals
Often, overcoming selfishness in relationships is a matter of thinking long and hard about your end goals. One of the issues I asked James and Sarah to consider was this: “What do you really want in a relationship with this other person? What do you imagine that will entail, and what will you give up and get if you make this shift?”
If they were to successfully move forward, merging their two worlds, they would need to let go of some of their old life and move courageously into their new life. Much like two rivers come together to form one, they leave parts of their old world behind, moving through a phase of turbulence until they’ve settled into a new union.
Scripture honors this union. And the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. —Mark 10:8
Here we see the clear implication that we must let go of some individuality in order to arrive at a new union. Rather than viewing this transition as one of challenge, however, I prefer to see this as something marvelous that God has designed. I call it positive codependence — moving from me to we.
Overcoming Selfishness In Relationships
Let’s consider some of the challenges and opportunities in making this transition.
First, moving from me to we is a transition. This move will not happen in one fell swoop. Rather, you will come face to face with challenges to give up your old way of doing things in favor of something that works for both of you. You may find this transition turbulent at times as you leave old behaviors, habits and even desires behind. You must be willing to “let go.”
Second, moving from me to we is an opportunity. When “the two will become one flesh” occurs, you now have the opportunity of doing things differently, seeing things differently and enjoying new experiences. You have the opportunity of caring deeply for another person. Overcoming selfishness in relationships doesn’t mean giving up your own goals. Think of it as expanding them instead. You can selflessly choose to care lovingly for another person. Your world can become larger, not smaller. Yes, you will be asked to give up some things, but you get so much more. See this move as an opportunity.
Third, moving from me to we will illuminate old, selfish patterns. Notice the places you cling to old behaviors. What are you reluctant to give up and why? Where do you ‘dig in your feet’ and resist transitional change? These places of turbulence will illuminate places of selfishness, pride and even stubbornness. Explore these areas closely, seeking Godly counsel about what these situations have to offer you.
4. New Developments
Fourth, moving from me to we is an opportunity to develop a new relationship, with yourself, your mate and God. As you lean into this new relationship, you form a new union. This is a new partnership, and new entity. You can help your mate become all he / she was meant to be and they can do the same for you. Embrace this new union and see how you can emerge better than before.
5. Open Eyes And Open Heart
Finally, moving from me to we is an opportunity to see God work in exciting ways. Notice God at work in your new relationship. God can and will bless your relationship, but you need to be open and receptive to these new blessings. “To everything there is a season,” and this is an opportunity to move into a new season of your life.
Overcoming selfishness in relationships takes time and intention. But with the right mindset, you can move mountains. Positive codependence is an opportunity to gladly relinquish old, selfish patterns in favor of serving and loving your mate.
You may also be interested in: What To Do When You Hit A Rough Patch In A Relationship
About the author: You can read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.