Is your partner self absorbed?

In healthy relationships both partners feel seen, heard and understood.
In some unions the balance of attention giving is skewed. One partner
seems to be getting most of the energy, while the other is less noticed.

“Why does it always have to be only about you?” “When do I get to have
you consider my needs?” ” I don’t feel seen by you- You are so selfish”.
These are quotes from partners who feel unattended to by their mates.

Though selfish is defined as “for oneself”, it is often associated with
behaving at the expense of other people. Most people are not selfish –
they may however be “self-referenced”.

We can categorize people’s attention style as either “other-referenced”
or “self-referenced”. Other-referenced people tend to consider the needs
of other people prior to considering their own. They are often labeled
considerate, sensitive, empathic and caring.

Self-referenced individuals consider primarily their own needs. The
thought of others people’s wishes does not come instinctively to them,
they must be jarred and prodded to do so – and even then they may
respond poorly.

I liken self-referenced people to individuals surrounded by a circle of
mirrors, wherever they look, they see their own reflection. These
individuals are not bad people; they have been deprived of a strong
capacity for empathy.

The childhood of self-referenced individuals is often devoid of empathic
and compassionate parenting. Experiments with Monkeys raised in the wild
provided understanding of the neurological basis of empathy. The human
brain possesses the neural wiring that affords the development of
empathy. However, repeated interactions with hostile, violent, angry or
neglectful caregivers may interfere with the brain connections
responsible for giving and receiving empathy. The self-centered
preoccupation is then undertaken as a means of survival.

Shared empathy is essential for intimacy. Being a partner of a self
referenced mate is lonely and perplexing. How can you keep feeling
loved when your needs, feelings, thoughts and actions are rarely
considered? How can you feel valued in this type of a union?

It is often a giver who is partnered with a self-referenced mate. The
giving person is so enamored by being supportive and helpful, that he
or she may take a long time to even notice that the giving is not
reciprocal. At some point, the one sided concern is deeply felt with
loss and pain.

When it is pointed out to the self-referenced person that he or she has
not been attentive, it is received with a perplexed response. The self
-involved partner appears to not understand the complaint. To use a
computer metaphor, it somehow does not “appear on his screen”. He may
not even know what is expected, since recognizing other people’s needs
is foreign to him.

Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique
experience of another. In order to feel another’s pain or joy, one needs
to be able to understand an experience and place oneself in that
situation. This is a daunting task for someone unaccustomed and
physiologically blocked since childhood from empathic understanding.

Self- absorbed partners are capable of loving behaviors. Since these
acts do not come naturally to them, they must learn to be considerate
and loving. Partners of self-referenced people carry the burden of
teaching, requesting and even insisting on equal consideration.

It is not productive for partners of self-referenced people to resort to name-calling, demanding and threatening words to alleviate their anger
and hurt. Self-centerdness may be viewed as a disability rather than a
deliberate conduct.

What may be more helpful is to:

  • Recognize that the self-referenced individual is emotionally
    different, not obstinate.
  • Do not see his or her lack of attention as a reflection of your worth.
  • Be as loving a partner to the self-referenced mate, as it suits you.
    The rewards come from valuing yourself.
  • Abstain from judging her love, devotion or caring by her basic
    orientation of self-centeredness.
  •  Seek empathy from friends who are able to give it more readily.
  • Empathy is not synonymous with kindness. A self-referenced individual
    is capable of learning kind and loving conduct.
  • Try specific requests _ such as: “before you accept invitations on our
    behalf, please tell them you’ll check with me and call them back.”
  • Capitalize on your partner’s admirable qualities.
  • Model empathic and compassionate behaviors _ they are healthy for you
    and can be emulated by your mate.
  • Feel blessed that you are an empathic individual, capable of emotional
    connection with others.
  • Concentrate on all the rewarding aspects of your relationship. A
    perfect one is yet to be found.

Though it is challenging to be coupled with a self-referenced partner,
it often serves the mate well in some other ways, such as being pleased
about being attentive and loving. Consider the benefits of your union.
Learn to de-emphasize what you lack and teach your partner better ways
to please you.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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