The selfish and the selfless in relationship

In human life, there is an uneasy truce between selfishness and selflessness. The selfless need to hold the selfish to account. Photo by Shoeib Abolhassani on Unsplash


A selfless person, and a selfish person, are living together.  Let’s call them Selfless and Selfish.  There is only one meal a day available.  Selfish grabs it every day, and selfless lets them.  Result: one dead selfless person, and one alive selfish person.


After Selfless has died, though, Selfish experiences suffering, because they are lonely.  The next time they are in the same situation, Selfish uses a different tactic.  They share just enough with Selfless 2 to keep them alive.  That way, they get most of the food, but don’t have to cope with loneliness.  There is also the added advantage that Selfless 2 is still alive to do unwanted tasks in the house.


Selfless 2, though, notices a problem.  They like to help people outside the house, and Selfish is taking up so much time and resource that they have little left to help others with.  How can Selfless negotiate enough resource from Selfish to help others?

Selfless threatens to leave Selfish, and Selfish, out of fear, gives Selfless more resource to work with.  This is the tactic of strikes, whereby the few in power are threatened with the withdrawal of labour, and sometimes give in and share resources more widely.

This also explains relationships where one selfish partner seems to be lazily using a selfless partner, and the selfless partner periodically ‘goes on strike’ and has to protest to stop the selfish one using them too much.


There exists an uneasy truce, in which Selfish shares resources as long as the threat of withdrawal of service by Selfless continues.  Many relationships are like this, with a more selfish partner forced to share, as long as it is in their own interests to do so.  The equilibrium relies on Selfless realising that they have to make their service conditional.


Do you have someone selfish in your life, whom you are supporting in a precarious relationship?  If so, you may have realised that, if you don’t stand up for yourself, you will end up starved of resources.  You may have noticed that you need to make clear to Selfish that their actions have consequences.  If you don’t do this, you will get walked over, and be rendered unable to help anyone else.

There are many systems in our world which represent an attempt to keep selfishness at bay. Examples are:

  • laws preventing selfish people from enriching themselves at others’ expense
  • contracts which hold selfish people responsible for their part in any mutual arrangement
  • behaviours of inclusion and exclusion which put selfish people outside collaborative arrangements


Nevertheless, toxic relationships exist between selfish and selfless people.  They rely on selfless people making allowances, so that selfish people can take more and more.

If selfless people never learn to hold selfish people to account, then selfless people will be taken advantage of, and become sidelined and non-functional. If you are kind, therefore, you also need to learn to be strong, so that your kindness isn’t wasted on people who want to take advantage.


It is worth examining your relationships to see where the balance lies.  Your relationships may divide into three:

  1. Relationships where you are the more selfish one
  2. Relationships where you are the less selfish one
  3. Relationships with an equal balance of mutual care
  1. Where you are the more selfish one, you will tend not to notice, and you will be very annoyed if it is pointed out
  2. Where you are the more selfless one, you will tend not to notice, because you are busy trying to look after the selfish one
  3. Where the relationship is equal, you will tend not to notice, because it feels easy

This means that you are likely not to notice the balance of your relationships unless you make an effort to open your eyes.


To keep good relational balance in your life:

  1. Try to observe your own selfishness, and work on moderating it.
  2. Where you observe selfish behaviour in others, hold it to account if necessary.
  3. Try to notice, value and encourage relationships with a balance of mutual care.  They are priceless.