"Why Do I Pick Selfish Girl/Boy Friends and Lovers?" is a question I hear again and again from clients of all ages. Examples are plentiful:
Miriam arrived for an appointment, 15 minutes late and tearful. In her words: "Martha lives next door to me, has full time help, and does not work. Martha's kids and Jimmy (my client's son) are at the same school. I have taken Martha's two kids to play-school more times than I can count. Today, just before our appointment, Jimmy fell. I did all the necessary antibiotic covering and bandaging, but asked Martha, who was relaxing outside, if she would watch him for two hours. Her response was that she was at an important part of a book she was reading." My client continued, "Fortunately, I was able to reach my dad and drop Jimmy off at his house before coming here."
My 22-year-old client, a social work grad student, is in a serious relationship with a law student, who is the same age. Miriam and Hank were frequent guests at the summer home of her grandparents, who raised her after the death of her parents in a horrible airplane tragedy. But when her grandmother died suddenly, Hank said he was staying put, explaining he could not miss an important football game he would be attending with his friends.
Cherrie and her husband agreed to chair a fund raising event for a debilitating illness that their grandson developed. They consulted me when several of their friends who they have been "generous to in innumerable ways involving time, care, and contributions" never mentioned the hand-delivered invitation or sent in a contribution of any kind." As Cherrie explained, "Just a few dollars or a call would have meant so much to us. Chairing such a major event was way out of our comfort zone, and to be brushed off by those we consider good friends really stung."
Charlie and his childhood friend, Sam, bought four tickets for their hometown football team's recent season. Charlie saw this as an opportunity for the two couples to spend time together. Two of the seats were better than the other two, and Sam took them with no explanation. "I decided not to make a big deal out of it," said Charlie, "but when Sam and his wife could not attend, they never even told us we would not be seeing them, and they gave the better seats to others." "Looking back," reflected Charlie," everything has always had to be about Sam. He demands that he be the center of everything, and becomes irrational and irritated if you ask for things to be organized for someone else's convenience."
My client Tim's closest childhood friend is known in his community as its most philanthropic and financially generous member. "But he barely has time for me now, " Tim explains. "John was the best man in our wedding, but I am no longer important enough, in his eyes, to sit at his table. Once in a blue moon he and his wife ask us to dinner. When they do, they act like they are slumming. Why do we still accept their invitations?" he asks both himself and me.
Most people have had experience with those who demand all to be their way and for their convenience. Commonly these people have been raised as the very center of their family's world, and they have not been taught that other people's needs, feelings, ideas are just as important as theirs. Sometimes, also, they have been very deprived of love, and insist that all around them compensate by demanding expectations and childish retaliations when expectations are not met.
To respond to my clients' questions: Why do so many allow themselves to be taken advantage by those who are basically selfish? In my experience, those who have not been loved securely by their parents and caretakers are the most vulnerable to this continued maltreatment. They yearn to be loved by "important" people, for who is more important than our parents when we are young? And they are attracted to those they believe offer them an opportunity to work out this sad, unfinished emotional business and receive the love denied them in important young, formative years. But in time, if they are good to themselves, they learn that they are, in Tim's words and reflections, "barking up the entirely wrong tree. It just is not going to happen! Selfish 'friends' are really not friends. We are only their window dressing."
Why do some allow this "window dressing" role? My client Miriam figured it out in her case: "My mom died when I was ten. I so remember how sick she was, and as a little girl, I would have done anything in the world to help her recover. Then, when she died I missed her so I thought I was going to die. I guess I have been trying to heal all of my life, by giving and giving, far too often to those who never care one hoot about me. Well, enough of that!" Miriam's self awareness sheds light for all who allow this kind of relationship: They will feel so much better about themselves, and stop feeling rotten, by picking friends and companions who understand and respect the mutuality of caring.
The bottom line is, of course, that score keeping has no place in close, caring friendships or intimate partnerships. However, when one party does all of the giving, change is called for.
Sometimes discussing the imbalance can bring change. Sometimes withdrawing can cause another to face selfishness and change.
But here's the bottom line: Selfish behavior will not change unless one decides to face the pain and unfair treatment it brings to others and give it up. And those who stay in relationships with totally selfish people cannot help but feel rotten far too much of the time.