Selfish Altruism

I have recently become quite enamored with the idea of being selfish. No, I haven’t just lost my moral compass and decided that Imma do what I want. Quite to the contrary, I have come to the conclusion that if I want to be a good person to the people around me that I care about, the first step is to be a little bit selfish.

I spent a lot of time trying to erase myself as an entity. This leads to a lot of obsessing over one’s actions, but also to just being an ass because you refuse to speak up about what you like or dislike, put forth your opinions, or be present. I tried to be a good friend and to do nice things for people, but at the same time I refused to see myself as a real human being, which meant I didn’t give myself the ability to actually act effectively in the world. Mostly I just spent a lot of time trying to get out of other people’s way. This isn’t a particularly good way to be good to others.

Even for those who don’t go as far as I did, when you spend all your time sacrificing for others you’re likely to be a fairly unhappy individual. When you’re unhappy you’re less effective, less energetic, less kind, and less creative. Being a little bit selfish negates a lot of these problems. It’s as simple as organizing your life in such a way that you spend a fair amount of your time doing things that you enjoy or find fulfilling. They don’t have to be harmful to anyone, but it does mean accepting that you’re worth your own time and effort: thinking about yourself. Being selfish.

When you spend more time thinking about yourself and how to keep your own emotions well adjusted, you become a far more stable and content person. This gives you a stronger base to actually do things for others as opposed to running on fumes just to always say yes to others (but never actually accomplishing much). It also means that you’re less likely to react poorly when others do things you don’t like. This to me is the best thing you can do for the people around you: take care of yourself well enough that you can handle their daily ups and downs. It’s amazing how much that helps everyone.

Part of this is that when you do things for yourself you have more to give. You get rejuvenated by the things you care about, and so even if you’re spending time on yourself you still probably have more time to give to your family and friends because you’re not exhausted, miserable, or angry all the time. Let’s say you’re someone who loves dancing. It makes you feel passionate and joyful and full of life and energy. But you have a family to support and so you don’t do it and instead get a job as an accountant and hate it all the time to pay the bills for your family. Do you really think this is the better choice for your family? Do you honestly think that having more money makes up for being pissy and cranky and miserable all the time?

People who love you do actually want the things that you bring to the table. They want the joy you bring to the table when you’re dancing. You’re likely to be far better at the things you enjoy and thus will end up doing more for others with them. There’s always a balance. Having a day job might be the right choice, but incorporating the things you love into your life will make you more giving when you do have time for your family.

A final thing to consider is that when you’re being altruistic, it’s important to people that you mean it, not that you’re simply doing it out of some misguided sense of duty or martyrdom. When you have a strong sense of self identity made up of some strategic moments of selfishness, your family and friends know that when you are with them or do something for them, you truly mean it and probably enjoy it. That will likely mean more to people than just having someone they can walk all over.

Sacrifice can be highly altruistic, but not when it’s all you do. If that’s the case, then you don’t even have a self to sacrifice, it doesn’t mean the same thing, and it’s just not helpful because you have no pool of resources to give from. It seems counterintuitive, but the best ways we can contribute to community is by doing things that are actually good for us, whether that be helping others by using talents we enjoy or by taking the time for ourselves to refresh so we can behave like a decent human being.

Yeah I’m selfish. Because I have a self and that self deserves caretaking. It makes me a better person.

In Defense of Monogamy

Most of you might think that monogamy needs no defense: it’s the norm. Most people are monogamous, and polyamory or open relationships are still considered bad or screwed up in some way. In general, I agree with you. In mainstream culture, monogamy is living a fine and boisterous life.

However within certain strains of atheist, feminist, and social justice communities, monogamy has a really bad reputation. It’s understandable that many people who are poly or open feel like they need to defend their lifestyle. It’s understandable that they’re angry. But what isn’t understandable is the bizarre bashing of the entire concept of monogamy.

There are blog posts out there that suggest that monogamy is necessarily non-egalitarian. There are people who have suggested that the only reason monogamy still exists is because of religion. Monogamy is considered backwards, overly traditional, conservative, religiously motivated and stifling by many people who are poly or people who profess to be forward thinking. It’s almost considered a brand of shame to be monogamous: you probably aren’t very liberal, you’re probably really repressed, and your sex life must suck.

I have news: monogamy can be feminist. Monogamy can be practiced happily and healthily by atheists in a completely non-religious way. Monogamy can be a choice that fully recognizes and respects the needs and desires of both parties. Monogamy can even do all these things if the two parties have mutually agreed upon rules about what they are and are not comfortable with in their monogamy. Boundaries are not non-egalitarian.

People have different sexual impulses. Most of us understand this, but in practice it’s easy to become defensive of our own choice when someone else says they prefer a different choice. What is it about monogamy that is so upsetting to many people, and what’s wrong with those arguments? Why is monogamy a valid life choice?

One of the arguments against monogamy is that it’s unnatural and restricting. Many people who are poly or open can’t imagine being satisfied with one partner, so they generalize and assume that all people cannot be happy with one partner. The way that monogamy is constructed in our society is certainly far from natural, in that it generally requires a particular narrative, but monogamy in and of itself does not have to be unnatural.

It’s fairly simple to look at animals and see that there’s a number of animals who pair-bond without any societal influences. There’s nothing inherently stifling to one’s sex drive to stay with the same partner for your entire life. We don’t know much about what the human sex drive looks like without any societal influence (hint: we never will because it’s impossible to study that), but we can see that monogamy exists in a variety of ways and places and thus there is no a priori reason to label it as unnatural.

Others say that monogamy will just never work because everyone will wander or want something different. However there are many people (myself included) who crave the things that monogamy provides and have little to no desire for the positive things that polyamory provides. Monogamy provides a great deal of consistency, which is a fairly basic human drive. It also prioritizes a very deep relationship with one individual over more relationships with more people. There are many people who prefer this style of relating: I would rather have one or two incredibly close friends than a variety of decent friends. It’s significantly easier to reach that level of deep connection when you focus your attention on one person for an extended length of time. Finally, polyamory or an open relationship requires a great deal of trust for more people, as well as balancing of time, energy, money and resources. Some of us just want things to be as simple as possible and having less people involved is simpler. I have never had a desire to move away from monogamy because its positives are two important to me.

My least favorite argument against monogamy is that it’s selfish. Interestingly, this is a claim that’s been leveled against polyamory as well. Perhaps we all want to think of our choices as selfless, but if I could make one request of the world it would be to stop calling other people’s sexual choices selfish.

The reason that some people call monogamy selfish is because they say it places your jealousy or discomfort over your partner’s interests, desires, and happiness. This is an extremely worrying argument to me.  It implies that we should ignore or minimize any pain or discomfort we have so that our partner can do things that make them happy. It sounds disturbingly like rape apologetics to me. In reality, if our emotions are telling us that something is wrong, that something has crossed our boundaries, that we’re unhappy or distressed, or that we’re anxious and afraid, we should listen to them. We all have the right to take care of our emotions in the ways we need to, and if that means asking your partner to stop doing something that’s making you unhappy, then that’s ok.

Emotions are not trite, unimportant things. I know someone who has had a PTSD related panic attack after being triggered by her boyfriend being with another girl, and his response was that she was being selfish asking him to be monogamous while she dealt with her PTSD. Emotions are serious, and the distress we feel over some jealousies is very real and very painful. Asking people to prioritize their partner’s physical enjoyment over their own mental health is a dangerous road to take.

In conjunction with the selfish argument is the idea that relationships shouldn’t have rules or limits for our partner because that limits them in a selfish way. I call bollocks. In every relationship, we have some rules that we set. If you prefer to call them boundaries instead of rules, then whatever floats your boat, but we all have the right to lay down certain behaviors as unacceptable because they hurt us.

We ask our partner to respect our feelings and desires, and in turn we do our best to respect theirs. These do not limit us in a negative way, they keep us from hurting the other person. They are good restrictions. I have some extremely hard and fast rules in my relationship. My boyfriend is not allowed to hit me. My boyfriend is not allowed to yell at me. One of these rules happens to be that he won’t sleep with another person, or I won’t date him anymore because that would hurt me deeply. I’m sure he has similar rules. These are not negative rules. They are expectations that the other person will respect me and my boundaries. They indicate self-respect. ANY relationship we’re in, romantic or not, has these expectations of good behavior and respect. Some people may prefer not to make them explicit because they think it’s stifling, but I simply find that it makes everything more clear.

Finally, many people seem to assume that no one would choose monogamy because they really want it. Lots of people assume that the only reason people are monogamous is because of jealousy, or an attempt to control, or the desire to take an exclusive place in their partner’s life. Interestingly, none of these are reasons that I am monogamous. I am monogamous because I see absolutely no appeal in being poly. Sex holds little to no appeal to me, particularly not sex with new people as I’m very shy about my body. I’m quite happy having one partner. I have no desire for anything more. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything at all. I get a great deal of happiness and fulfillment from my current relationship and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I am built perfectly for monogamy. I am good at focusing on one person and one person alone. I’m bad at managing multiple people’s needs at once. I prefer having one person to fall back on. I really like the consistency of one person. Monogamy is good for me as a person. It has nothing to do with religion, with tradition, with social expectations, and it certainly doesn’t have to do with fear of societal retribution.

There is no best or even necessarily better relationship set up. Having different boundaries in your relationship doesn’t mean someone else’s boundaries are bad or inappropriate. We’re all built different, so our relationships should be too.