Joan and Frank were married for 30 years. He was a career diplomat, and Joan faithfully followed him to his many posts around the world, being a supportive wife and mother of their three children. She made deep friendships and started projects wherever they lived. When they returned to the United States, their children grown, Joan decided that it was her turn to follow her heart's desire, and chose to get a graduate degree at the local university where she was awarded a full fellowship. She couldn’t wait to begin.
There’s nothing like a life-threatening illness to rock your world.
Shortly before her program began, Frank had a massive heart attack. On the way to the hospital, Joan decided to let go of her long-awaited dream. The next day when Frank opened his heavily drugged eyes she told him, "Frank, don't worry. I'm not going to go to graduate school. That's not important anymore. I’m going to stay home and take care of you." She thought that her words would reassure him. They didn’t.
Despite the oxygen tubes coming out of his nose, the IV tubes in his arm, and the EKG wires running off his chest, Frank managed to heave himself up to a sitting position and said. "Joan...you will do no such thing... you must go to school... you must!" His eyes were huge from the effort. Shocked to hear these words, Joan agreed.
Frank spent a month in the hospital recovering while Joan started school. It was a turning point in Frank’s life to let go of his professional ambition after decades of striving. He stated, “What Joan saw as my generosity was not a sacrifice, but a gift to her, to myself and to our marriage all at the same time.”
What goes around comes around.
Frank’s decision was based upon enlightened self-interest. This term refers to the understanding that what a person does to enhance another's life enhances one's own as well. More simply put, "what goes around comes around.” Some people call it “Karma”. The happiest couples report that they derive pleasure in giving, especially to their partner. Acts that are motivated by enlightened self-interest are the ultimate “win-win”.
Those who recognize this process generally don't see themselves as being especially considerate, but rather as simply acting in response to a perceived need in another. The kinds of remarks that we hear from couples that delight in their relationships are: "I enjoy doing things that help; that's why I do them." "I'm not a particularly unselfish person. I do things that make me feel good and making her happy is one of my greatest joys." "His happiness always comes back and benefits me."
Generosity springs forth from love.
Enlightened self-interest is different from codependency, which arises out of feelings of fear, obligation, scarcity, and insufficiency. In a codependent relationship, one partner may follow their lead, trying to please them because they are fearful that if they don't, unpleasant repercussions will occur. The most successful couples don't "give to get" but rather give their care to each other from a well that is already full. Their acts of generosity spring forth from love.
When the fulfillment of each other is a high priority for each partner, other preferences become subordinate to that intention. Getting "my way" becomes much less of a priority because getting "our way" becomes what I really want. Fulfilling my desires at the expense of my partner's missing out on theirs ultimately diminishes the quality of our relationship.
Ceasing to keep score.
We still have our personal preferences, but there is no urgency about having them fulfilled. We are finally relieved of the need to keep score, since the object of the game is no longer to make sure that I get my share, but rather to co-create as much mutual fulfillment as possible.
The shadow side of enlightened self-interest is that when our partner feels pain, sadness, or disappointment, we are so close to them that we too suffer. We can't experience joy of without also experiencing suffering. Many people avoid closeness out of a desire to avoid their partner’s pain. Feeling the pain of our partner is part of the price we pay to share the joy of each other's happiness.
Balancing our needs with theirs.
When we begin to make the other's needs as important as, not more than, our own, we are well on our way to having the process of enlightened self interest working for us. You don't have to limit this process to one person; you can apply it to anyone (or everyone) in your life. Imagine what life would be like if you brought enlightened self-interest into all of your relationships. You might see that as an impractical or unrealistic idea, but consider the possibility that it could be the most practical thing that you could do!
Linda Bloom L.C.S.W. has served as psychotherapist and seminar leader practicing relationship counseling almost forty years. Check out her OMTimes Bio.
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