I always made things about me in my marriage, even though I would have told you I thought of myself as an unselfish person and valued the idea of selfless love.
Back then, my wife would say things like: “It’s always about what Matt wants,” and I’d think she was being an asshole. Then I’d defend myself, obtusely proving her right.
If you’re someone like me who is accused of “making everything about you,” please consider that you may also have the same blind spots that I had. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You literally don’t know, and I don’t think you should be judged or made to feel awful about it. I just think if you value your romantic partner and aspire to have a non-shitty relationship with her or him, that it’s important to understand that they often experience you differently than you believe they should.
I understand that you feel like a well-intentioned person who has demonstrated sufficient evidence that you love your partner and have made many personal sacrifices on their behalf. So, it feels particularly unfair and gutting to hear suggestions to the contrary from the person you’ve given the most to.
That’s how it felt when I was married and pissed at my ‘unfair’ wife whenever she had the audacity to suggest I wasn’t the world’s greatest husband.
Now I think I get it.
In my coaching work, we hyperfocus on habits. I can’t help anyone with a character defect that I don’t even believe is there. I’m not a doctor and I’m not that smart. I can’t help a bad person become good. That work is well above my pay grade. But also, I reject the notion that I’m working with bad people. (If you’re married to a “bad person,” please consider leaving. There is no compelling argument for subjecting ourselves or our children to the abuses of bad people.)
I don’t think bad people doing bad things is what ends most relationships. I think good people unaware of how much pain their partner might sometimes feel (thereby demonstrating little respect, compassion, or empathy for the hurt they’re experiencing) is the problem.
Let’s talk about the two primary ways that we sometimes “make everything about us” which our partners experience as neglect and abandonment for several years before they stop wanting to be with us.
Making Everything About You, Part I
The first way we make everything about us takes place during our conversations.
Something happens, resulting in our partner experiencing pain somehow. Sadness. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. Anxiety.
Everything feels wrong, and when things hurt and feel wrong, our top objective is to get back to normal. To stop the pain.
When the pain is emotional, and stemming from a relationship, it makes sense for one partner to say something to the other partner. Unless you’re both psychic telepaths, or prefer written correspondence, actually speaking to one another is the preferred way of sharing what’s happening.
“Hey Matt. That thing that happened earlier? I feel hurt by it,” my wife might have said.
When I wasn’t invalidating my wife by telling her she was incorrect about what happened, or invalidating her by telling her the thing wasn’t as big of a deal as she’s making it out to be and therefore should not be feeling so hurt by it, then I was invalidating her by defending my actions or good intentions.
One of the most common ways we make it about us, is by responding to our partners as if THEY’RE hurting us by informing us that they’ve been hurt.
When my wife would say: “Hey Matt. I’m hurt. Please help me not hurt,” I would reply in ways that eroded her trust in me. In ways that resulted in her hurting even more than before she said anything.
Even though I would never want my wife to feel pain, I did not respond to my wife out of concern that she was hurt.
Even though it would have been useful to understand WHY something was hurting my wife so that I could cooperatively participate moving forward in her NOT feeling hurt by that same thing, I didn’t invest any energy in trying to understand what had happened.
What I did was put my energy into defending myself.
I didn’t mean to hurt you, so you shouldn’t be upset with me. I’m not at fault here.
Hey. It makes sense if you think about it the way I think about it. Let me explain why this happened because I don’t want you to be mad at me anymore.
- Our partner is hurt.
- Our partner attempts to let us know.
- Our energy immediately funnels NOT toward alleviating their pain, or expressing concern that something is wrong, or demonstrating that we’re willing to understand why this hurts so that we can be trusted to not do this same thing again (because pain is most often caused not by harmful intentions, but by things we never even realized were happening).
- Our energy immediately funnels instead to defending our character, justifying our actions, explaining our thoughts and feelings as a means of alleviating ourselves of responsibility for any harm caused.
This is what it looks and feels like when someone experiences pain, and then when trying to recruit their partner to help them not feel hurt anymore, the partner makes the situation about themselves.
That’s what I most often did in these moments. My default setting was to prioritize defending my character or “well-intentioned” actions at the expense of whatever pain my wife might have been feeling.
When someone is hurt, and every time they tell you that they’re hurt and ask for help, you tell them that they should magically stop feeling hurt instead of helping them, or say that even if they are hurt, it’s not your fault or problem, they will always hurt a little bit more and trust you less afterward.
They can’t trust us to not make THEIR pain about US. We rob them of their opportunity to appeal for help. We steal it from them. We tell hurt people to stop being weak, and then we tell them to stop making US feel inconvenienced by their pain.
This is a major reason why—even though you’re pretty awesome most of the time, and everyone seems to like you—your partner sometimes thinks you’re a selfish asshole.
Making Everything About You, Part II
The second way we commonly make everything about us in relationships is not about what we do, but what we DON’T do.
It lives under the umbrella of the No. 2 habit I ask my coaching clients to work on: Consideration.
Marriage and romantic relationships often suffer from one person investing infinitely more energy into the relationship than their partner, and if we’re being honest about it, it is—far and away—most common for women to suffer from this condition in male-female relationships.
What I often hear from female clients is that they’re married to, or dating someone, who doesn’t consider them when they make decisions. That might seem petty-ish on the surface. I thought so during my marriage. Imagine complaining because I didn’t bring a coffee home to you, as if I would ever be that petty to you!
This is a big deal. People don’t see it. Particularly men. Husbands. Fathers.
What often happens is that one partner (usually the wife or girlfriend) wakes up every day and throughout each day, all of their decisions about how they spend their time is filtered through the prism of “How will my husband be affected by this?” and “How will my children be affected by this?”
If you think of the decision-making process as a math equation, wives and mothers (often just women, in general) rarely fail to consider how their actions might impact their partners or anyone they care about.
Me + Making a Hair Appointment at 4 p.m. Tuesday = I won’t be able to drive my daughter to basketball practice, and it will prevent me from preparing the family meal, which will require my husband to manage dinner if we’re going to keep our normal schedule.
Someone who thinks like this mindfully communicates these logistical dilemmas to everyone involved. Maybe the daughter gets a ride to practice from a teammate’s parent, and maybe her husband prepares the meal, or orders takeout, or whatever.
Often, a wife/mother in this situation won’t do what she wants to do (go to her hair appointment at 4 p.m. Tuesday), and instead schedule it at some super-inconvenient time for her that won’t adversely affect her husband or children.
This is how she lives her life every day. Constantly—all the time—having her Awareness switch flipped to the “On” position. Never making decisions—large or small—without running those decisions through the filter of how the people she loves might be affected by them.
And then there’s us.
You know who you are because you’re just like me. Hi. Sorry. I know it sucks. You’re not trying to make anyone else’s life harder. You don’t FEEL like a selfish, shitty person. You don’t intend to be. You’re just living your life, getting up in the morning, going to work, and trying generally to be cool the rest of the time. You want to do fun, relaxing things whenever you’re not doing what you HAVE to do (going to work and house/family-related chores).
And then you’re hearing about how selfish and inconsiderate you are because you’re playing a video game, or because you forgot to empty the dishwasher, or because she’s acting hurt or angry that you planned to go hunting with your dad and brothers, and waited until afterward to tell her about it. Now, she’ll spend that weekend caring for the kids and pets alone regardless of her plans, and if she dares to object, then she’s the bad guy because she’s “trying to keep you from doing things with your family.”
What a drag and ungrateful nag, my wife is. I never complain to her about stuff like this.
But the truth is, every day of your lives, your partner is perpetually mindful of how their actions impact you. And because you’re loved and respected and cared for, they constantly modify their behavior to account for you and the other people they love.
But, nearly every day, there’s evidence that you don’t do that same thing for them.
It’s not that you’re a bad person. It’s not that you’re doing anything bad or harmful, and even if you did, it was 100-percent an accident. I get it.
The pain isn’t so much from the isolated incidents, or because of the notion that you’re a bad person who tries to hurt your loved ones.
The pain stems from the idea that your partner, and possibly your family, are not even part of your thoughts when you make decisions. No matter how insignificant that decision might seem.
“My partner doesn’t remember me when he makes decisions. I know he doesn’t hurt me on purpose. I know he’s a nice guy. What hurts is that I’m not important enough to remember. What kills me is how little I matter to him. The bad thing didn’t happen because he wanted it to. The bad thing happened because he totally forgot about me.”
Betrayal isn’t required to lose the trust of the people we love. Sometimes, it’s simply our blind spots that we’re not working to eliminate. Sometimes, it’s our habits.
The way we speak. The way we think.
I know you’re not a bad person. I don’t think I’m one either.
But things I did resulted in significant pain and broken trust with my wife, and that’s why we’re not married anymore. She didn’t leave because she’s mean or selfish or wanted to hurt me.
She left because SHE hurt, and every time she tried to recruit me to help stop the pain, I always made it about me.
Every day, she was reminded that the only person I always remembered to care about was myself.