On Selfishness

“You’re selfish.”

I’ve heard that charge from people on the Internet, usually folks who read one of my blog posts and say, “You have five girlfriends? That’s so selfish! You’re hogging all the women for yourself.”

“You’re selfish.”

Lately, I’ve been hearing it from an entirely different quarter: this time, from people who are reacting to the fact that I recommend relationships that aren’t built on rules. “You don’t have rules? That’s so selfish! You just want to run around doing anything you please!”

These accusations are a bit of a head-scratcher. There are two different directions I could take in writing about this. On the one hand, polyamory and a life without rules aren’t really selfish at all, and accusations of selfishness shine an interesting light on the conceptual frameworks we use to view the world. On the other hand, calling someone “selfish” is an effective shaming technique because we think of selfishness as an inherently, incontrovertibly bad thing, so it is difficult for someone accused of selfishness to say, “Well of course I am, and that’s good!” Accusations of “you’re selfish” are an attempt to provoke shame over perceived transgressions of some kind of social norm.

And then, when I sat down to write this, I thought: hey, why choose one? I’m poly! I’ll write about both.

Let’s start out by looking at the accusations themselves.

Is it selfish to have multiple partners? Is it selfish to construct relationships without rules?

Someone who looks at me and my sweeties might think, “Wow, this guy is taking all these women! He has five partners, and I only get one (or, perhaps, none at all)!” Someone who looks at my relationship structures might think, “Wow, this guy says his partners can’t put rules on him! He gets to do anything he wants!” And, from a certain narrow, through-a-keyhole viewpoint, that makes sense.

What both complaints miss is the idea that it’s not about me. Yes, I have five partners…and they all have other partners besides me! I’m not “hogging all the women”–far from it. If you shift the perspective off me and onto each of my sweeties, from their perspective I am one of several partners that they each have.

The same thing applies to the complaint about rules. When you shift the perspective off me and onto my sweeties, you see that I do not place rules on them. Each of my sweeties is free to make her own choices, without me telling her what to do–though we all negotiate around our needs. I place no restrictions on them because I am confident that, if I advocate for a need, my partners will choose to meet it. They’re with me because they want to be; if I express my needs, they will meet them because they want to.

In both cases, the complaint that I am being selfish focuses only on me. The person making the complaint is placing himself in my position and seeing the benefit to me from my relationship structures…without looking at the situation from the point of view of my partners, or examining the benefit to any of them.

Which is–dare I say it?–kind of a selfish perspective from which to make this complaint.

From a different perspective, one could argue that monogamy is selfish. After all, in a monogamous relationship, your partner is yours and yours alone. When you have a partner, that partner belongs to you; nobody else is allowed to touch.

And it could even be argued that rules-based relationships are selfish. The act of passing a rule, which for this purpose I mean as a restriction placed by one person on the behavior of another, is inherently selfish: when Alice passes a rule, she is attempting to get her needs met from Bob–the rules are not about Bob’s needs, or his other partners’ needs. I have never met anyone who says something like “Bob, honey, you have a new girlfriend? I would like to make sure your new girlfriend has her needs met, so I would like a rule that says you are required to spend the night with her at least once a week.”

No, in the real world, rules tend to look more like “I want to wake up beside you each morning, so you can’t spend the night with another lover.” Or “I want to preserve my sense of specialness, so you can’t take anyone else to our favorite restaurant.” Or “I want a sense of control over your other relationships, so I need to have a veto arrangement.” The common element of each of these rules–all three of which are, in my experience, quite common in poly relationships, is “I want.”

If you’re shaking your head and saying “Franklin, you asshole, are you saying every monogamous person or everyone who uses rules in their relationships is selfish? You bastard!”…hang on a second and let me explore the second part of this idea, which is that…

Selfishness is not (necessarily) a bad thing.

In its most basic sense, selfishness is a necessary part of any healthy relationship, or for that matter, any healthy life. We cannot set personal boundaries if we do not have a sense of motivated self-interest. We cannot care for others if we do not take care of ourselves.


We make choices every day, especially in our relationship lives, for reasons that can legitimately be called “selfish.” We all, at least ideally, seek relationships that make our lives better: that make us happier, add value to our lives, bring out the best in us, fill our days with joy. We would likely consider an unfulfilling relationship that we remained in even though we gained nothing from it dysfunctional, even soul-destroying. At the end of the day, we make the choices we make because we hope to be better off by them.

That doesn’t mean we are, or should be, selfish in every moment of our day-to-day decisions. We may stay with a partner through rough times, or make choices that help support a partner but cost us something, because we are committed to the long-term success of that relationship. But we’re committed to the long-term success of that relationship because enlightened selfishness takes the long view.

And selfishness is not zero-sum. We tend to think of selfishness as gaining at other people’s expense, but in fact, when we commit to a relationship that promotes the growth and happiness of everyone involved, everyone wins! My partners are with me because being with me makes their lives better. I am with them because being with them makes my life better. We continue to invest in those relationships even when they’re difficult because we look at global, not local, maxima. I may choose to give up something I want today for the sake of my partner, knowing that I am in the relationship for the long haul, and it will bring me joy into the future.

I think most people would agree that a relationship in which we sacrifice our happiness for the sake of another person without any possible hope of happiness, now or in the future, is probably not a good relationship. I think we’d all agree that a relationship in which we damage ourselves without hope of positive outcome is not healthy. There is always an element of selfishness (or, perhaps, self-interest, though the distinction between the two is often subjective and depends on which way you’re peering through the keyhole) in any healthy relationship; on some level, we know it’s impossible to sacrifice our own happiness for someone else’s, and that someone who expects us to is being perhaps a bit sociopathic.

Yet we still use “you’re selfish!” as a go-to tool of shame and control. We use it, ironically, when we want someone else to do something different–in other words, when we’re being selfish.

Some selfishness is okay. That kind lets us set and protect our boundaries, advocate for our needs, and choose relationships that are positive and rewarding. Some selfishness is not okay. That kind seeks to gain at other people’s expense, to get what we need without considering the needs of others, to take rewards that are denied to other people.

There are those who say that people who do not believe in God are incapable of being moral. I see a parallel in the idea that those who have no rules are certain to stomp willy-nilly all over their partners. Both assume that it is only external structures, restrictions imposed on us from the outside, that prevent us from consuming everything around us in an orgy of destructive selfishness.

No, polyamory isn’t inherently selfish. Polyamorous relationships built without rules aren’t inherently selfish, either. But that’s not to say that being selfish would automatically make them bad. It is time, I think, that we stop using “you’re selfish!” to club people who do what we don’t want them to, and instead consider that relationships that benefit everyone involved, without providing for some people at the expense of others, are in fact the relationships we should strive for.

Even if someone else finds them “selfish.”

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  1. We tend to see our own needs as necessarily more important than other people’s needs. Selflessness means striving to correct for this distortion of reality, by trying to see the situation from other viewpoints in addition to our own. Sometimes it is not practical, most of the time it is not easy. Selfishness means not trying to do it at all.

  2. Thanks for addressing this – as you know, this is a bit of a hot button for me. Unfortunately, we tend to lob the term “selfish” at our partners or members of our social group when we don’t like what they are doing. It’s a powerful method of social shaming, which more often than not, just tends to shut down the ability of a person to identify and advocate for their needs. If I could banish the word from the interpersonal lexicon I would.

    Before we can even begin to engage in healthy relationships, I think we need to look inside and understand our own needs and personal boundaries. In fact, I think we need to be doing this all of the time, and re-negotiating our relationships accordingly. Because, really, what is the alternative? Ignoring our needs and allowing our interpersonal interactions to violate our boundaries? Is this something to strive for? I believe understanding and advocating for your needs and your personal boundaries is critical to self esteem. And I believe that self esteem is critical for healthy relationships. I also think it’s critical for ongoing consent in a relationship

    Persistent self sacrifice does not only harm the martyr. When we live in a state of persistent unhappiness, we often cease to be able to see the way we are harming others because we are spending all of our energy responding to our own pain. We drain the strength we need to support the people around us, and to support ourselves. Therefore, ironically, I think it is when we are trying so very hard to not be selfish, that we can actually be the most blindly cruel.

    I have been trying very hard to reclaim the word selfish so it cannot be used against me. The more I embrace self care (“selfishness”), the stronger I become, the more flexible I become, and the better I am able to support those who touch my life. The more I sacrifice for others, the weaker I become, the more desperate I become, and the more I demand attendance to my increasingly critical needs (in other words, the more reactively and blindly selfish I become).

    I want partners who are selfish, because I want to know that they know how to take care of themselves and that what they give me, they give with strength and full consent.

  3. I liked bits or your article, but some points seemed a little off. Your argument that monogamy is selfish can easily be applied to polyamony. People choose to be in a monogamous relationship with understanding that they will not “touch” anyone else. Because monogamous relationships are mutual, this understanding is, well, a two-way street, with expectations going both ways (similar to your rulelessness being a a two way street, non-expectations going both ways). So if a person does not want to meet that expectation, it’s on that person, and not the partner who has an expressed expectation of monogamy, to get out of the relationship. If this is an act of selfishness, one could argue that polyamory’s rulelessness is selfish in similar regard – it requires that a potential partner either have no rules at all or else not be with a person who has expressed expectations of rulelessness. I think the major flaw in this argument resides in the idea that rulelessness is not an expectation or rule. Well, requiring that one have no rules establishing a relationship is, oddly enough, a limiting rule.

    Here’s what I just wrote in a series of conditionals highlighting how your argument can be used against polyamory: monogamy rules = expectations. If expectations not met, then rejected as partner. If threat of rejection as partner on basis of unmet expectations exists, then not really free to do whatever one likes. Similarly, Polyamorous rulelessness = expectations. If non-expectation not met, then rejected as partner. If threat of rejection as partner on basis of unmet expectations exist, then not really free to do whatever one likes in relationship.

    I also think your description about “rule creation” in monogamous relationships is a little off and, again, can be applied to polyamorous relationships. Rulelessness is something you apply to yourself because you are polyamorous. You apply rulelessness to others as an expression of your own polyamory. Meaning, your application rulenessless to your sweeties is merely incidential, and doesn’t seem to come from a place of selflessness (ie taking other’s needs into consideration). Instead, as you mentioned, a person who needs such consideration is cut loose. Correct me if I’m wrong- I’m just going off of what you’ve written.

    In my monogamous relationships, rule-creation is all about compromising your needs with the needs of others. Otherwise rules would be consistently broken and the other person’s needs would possibly not be addressed. That’s why I like monogamy – I grow quite a bit from it due to compromise (not so say polyamory doesn’t do this. It does, but in a completely different way). But, like polyamory, the implicit “rule,” that of expressing preference to limiting (in polyamory’s case, not limiting) the amount of partners in a relationship, is a shared, mutual rule that two people agree with when the relationship begins. Once again, if this is not a shared and mutual premise among one party, then that party shouldn’t be in a monogamous relationship. Similarly can be said of polyamory.

    Am I missing something?

  4. PS – I realize that the point of this argument is that selfishness is okay to some degree. That aspect of your argument is something I agree with. But half of this post seemed to imply that the selfishness you described in mongamous situations is a selfishness specific to monogamy. I simply argue that polyamory is selfish in the same way.

    And again, I think my argument hinges on what you define as a “rule” and whether you think having any rules, even one regarding the absence of them, is selfish or not.



  1. Link Love (2013-11-19) | Becky's Kaleidoscope - […] “Selfishness is not (necessarily) a bad thing. In its most basic sense, selfishness is a necessary part of any …

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