The Throwaway Concession: Selfishness and the Trojan Horse

a sepia themed photograph of a large Trojan horse being worked on by many people. There is a ladder propped against the side of the horse.
Image by Tama Leaver / CC BY

A reader made an excellent observation about my earlier piece “How to Know if You’re Selfish.”

I’m looking at your criterion for selfishness at the end and, to be honest, it feels incomplete.

Specifically, it leaves a very important case unclear: What if someone offers you something (that you didn’t ask for), because they want to set up a situation where you’ll give the same back? Are you selfish if you take it without being comfortable about giving it back later? Are you selfish if you didn’t know there was an ulterior motive when you made the decision? Are you selfish if the other person lied about not having ulterior motives when they offer this?

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In a nutshell, no. You would not be selfish to say no. And there are two major reasons why.

1. The Principle of Reciprocity Presumes Good Faith

The idea that it’s wrong for people to be selfish is based on cultural expectations of reciprocity. Social reciprocity is the understanding that, generally speaking, we should return kindnesses that others extend to us. If we invite someone to a party, we tend to expect that they will invite us to theirs. When they don’t, we often feel hurt by this. Or if we have that friend who always needs something and they never do anything nice back? Well, we’re likely to get a little salty after a while.

Now we don’t necessarily need the same exact favor returned to us. Instead, it’s that kindnesses are being exchanged, even if they take different forms.

The principle of reciprocity presumes good faith. It’s a funny thing. While we’re often hurt when we don’t receive the kindness in return, the initial gift or consideration ideally should be extended out of generosity and not in an attempt to manipulate the receiver into giving us something back.

Otherwise, it all falls apart. In this instance, it is not actually kindness but a form of control. And yes, selfishness.

We’re likely to feel used by this throwaway concession they’ve made, as a kind of Trojan horse. Hurt.

Perhaps we’ll rebel. If we do give in, we’re likely to find it a joyless proposition.

2. Selfishness Is a Pattern

And the second reason that it wouldn’t be selfish to say no in this situation is that selfishness is a pattern of behavior. A way of relating to others in which you are consistently unwilling to consider their needs.

And people who aren’t selfish themselves will understand the occasional, reasonable no. I wrote about this a bit in another piece I wrote, “Getting to No You: Setting Boundaries Reveals People’s True Natures.”

One isolated incident of obstinance isn’t selfishness. It’s taking a stand on something important.

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7 Comments

  1. Hi, Page,

    First- thank you for a great blog, and a wonderful book. I am learning a lot from everything you share.

    Second, I just wanted to ask a question. When my husband came to me and asked to open our marriage, he kept insisting he wasn’t selfish for wanting what felt right for him. I agreed at the start. However, he has chosen extremely selfish ways to behave since then, including lying and cheating. But he still continues to insist he’s not selfish.

    Any advice on how to talk to him about it?

    Thanks.

    1. Thank you for the kind words about the book and blog.

      This is a very difficult situation you describe — it’s inspired me to write a blog post about accountability and violated expectations (hope to have it done sometime here soon).

      I will say that if his actions are violating the relationship agreement that you’ve set together, he is either being selfish or lacking in self-control. And possibly both.

      Briefly, when someone has violated an agreement, talking to them, I tend to focus on the gap between the behavior I had expected from them and what they’ve actually done.

      I’m sorry you’re going through this. Has he shown any remorse for lying to you?

      And did you agree to open up? Or did he just start going for it and having other partners without you two setting up a relationship agreement? Or did you agree to polyamory and form an agreement and then he violated that? (Since polyamorous people can cheat as well if they don’t follow the rules of their own agreements.)

  2. We came to polyamory following his having two affairs with the same woman, about 6 months apart. About 9 months after the second one ended, he decided to answer an email she had sent him(she hadn’t stopped) in which she threatened to show up and cause a public scene. Long story short, he came to me to say he wanted an open marriage, he was and always had been non-monogamous, and he wanted her in his life. I did agree to the open marriage; they dived in headfirst and I was left to play catch up. There was no relationship agreement in place as they did not allow time to create one, and refused to read or learn about the lifestyle.

    They didn’t last long, and I found out about a major lie regarding the complete lack of safe sex practices as she got pregnant. She miscarried within the fourth month. He repeatedly apologized for the lie, and we worked through it. Or so I thought.

    He had one more short relationship with another woman. It went better for both of us, but again, it didn’t last. She was cheating, and was constantly changing and cancelling plans to avoid getting caught.

    The third, and last of his relationships to date was with a new partner, or so I was told. Again, the relationship didn’t last long, and was eerily reminiscent of the first. We talked about it multiple times, but he never told me the truth about who she was. They ended things in December; in February she contacted me through social media to reveal she was really the first (and original) partner again. Again, he was sorry for lying, etc etc.

    And that’s where we stand. So, in my mind, it’s not selfish of him to want a non-monogamous lifestyle if that’s who he is. But he has followed, in my mind, a very selfish path. Hence, my question, as he doesn’t necessarily agree.

    I am monogamous; the more I’ve read and learned about poly only confirms that for me. I have no issues with the lifestyle- it’s a valid choice, and I have great respect for those of you that can make it work, and practice it with ethics and honesty. But it’s not me.

  3. Thank you for the additional background! I’m going to write something thorough on this.

    Again, sorry you’re going through this. <3

  4. I just finished reading it, and bought the book you recommended as well.

    Thank you, Page- I appreciate the help. 😊

    Lisa

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