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Altruism Can Wreck Relationships



Altruism Can Wreck Relationships

Altruism can be destructive

Appendage-itis is my term for loving others so much that you become an appendage to them.The giving may be in physical gifts, in time, in money, or just in hyper-focusing on others’ preferences to the detriment of your own concerns.  Altruism is generally a good thing. By contrast, excessive altruism, while unlikely to be a reason for divorce, does tend to have a spoiling impact on relationships.  That’s because excessive giving encourages and enables a partner to sustain narcissistic all-about-me habits.

What is your give-get ratio?  How much do your actions respond to what you would like to do versus to others’ concerns?

My client Mary discovered her appendagitis tendency to serve others’ emotional and practical needs above her own.  By being so giving and nice to others, she was losing herself.

“I admit it,” Mary said to her husband in their couple therapy session. “I had a mother with, as you call it, appendage-itis. Bless her soul, she was a totally loving mom, but to such an extreme that it worked to her and our detriment.

“Mom never had time for her own interests because she was all about us. She had great ideas and a talent for writing but never got around to writing the books she could have penned because she devoted so much of her time, her energy, and even her money to doing things for us, for our dad, for our community. And I became a mom with the same tendency to be all about others, especially my kids and my husband.

“I realized it just last night. I laughed actually with the realization.”

Mary explained the moment of enlightenment that she’d experienced the evening before.

“My adult kids and I own a business together, though they all draw salaries and I work for free. Recently a large corporation has expressed interested in buying the business. With great delight one of the kids told me last night, ‘We kids were talking about how fun it will be if we really do succeed in closing the deal. We each have ideas for using the money mostly for remodeling our homes. And we were thinking you could you use your portion of the money to take us on family vacations!’

“On the one hand, I was delighted. How lovely that our adult kids, their spouses, and our grandkids all relish those special times when the extended family can gather to hang out together. My husband and I also love any and all chances to be with them.

“At the same time, something felt oddly amiss. My son actually caught it before I did. ‘Of course,’ he added, ‘maybe you, or you and dad, might have something you want to spend the money on, but…’

“That was it! I had been left out of the initial equation. The kids had assumed that any money of mine (or for that matter my skills, energy, time, etc) would of course all be directed toward their benefit. It’s like I only exist to serve them. At least I’m not a fifth wheel. But I’ve sure become a third appendage!”

On one level, Mary chuckled because she was glad to be altruistic on her children’s behalf. At the same time, on another level, as she realized that she had long locked into a pattern of excessive altruism, she felt concerned. How had she trained her children to expect her to function with a chronic case of appendagitis?

As she continued to think about her pattern, Mary realized that she had in fact become more than an appendage to her children’s lives. The fact that she had gradually become an independent person with her own interests and desires as well as a generous contributor to the team effort was what enabled her to look on her tendencies toward appendage-itis with good-humored bemusement.

“How about my relationship with you?” Mary asked her husband. “Have I hyper-focused on what you want to the exclusion of my own concerns?”

“Maybe that’s why,” Mary shared, “for years I have so often felt stifled around you. Stifled and even depressed. I see now how often our relationship has been all about you. I’ve joined in that belief, and even fostered it. We go to your marathons on the weekends. We spend money on the trips you want to take, the house you wanted to buy. We go to the restaurants you want to go to and watch the TV programs you want to see. And I go along with it almost every time.”

Fortunately, Mary’s case of appendage-itis was not cripplingly serious, was relatively without pain, and was one from which she could relatively easily relieve herself.

Fortunately also, her husband chuckled along with Mary’s realizations. He was totally on board with her discovery. He eagerly embraced learning to do his part to break out of his ‘all about me’ habits. He genuinely wanted to regard his wife with more appreciation, to listen to his wife in a way that took her viewpoints more seriously, and to elevate her concerns and preferences on par with his own.

Mary’s insights reminded me how many people, particularly women though sometimes men as well, do in fact suffer quite seriously from appendagitis. Their excessive altruism focuses their energies excessively onto others to the point that they lose their sense of having a self.

Some would call it “codependency,” or “enabling behavior.” These terms however usually refer to taking care of others in a way that fosters others’ negative habits, usually addictions. Appendagitis is a broader phenomenon.

All loving parents can easily be risk for becoming appendages to their children by getting stuck in a relationship that was appropriate when they were caring for new infants and then increasingly less appropriate as their children mature.

The women’s revolution of the 1970’s was meant to free women from self-definition as beings who exist primarily to serve their children and spouses. Revolutions however always take a long time to reach full implementation. Many women today still function like Mary had been functioning, without awareness of being locked in old ways. Looks like many folks may need a dose of what ’70’s women called “consciousness raising.”

In my clinical practice I see appendage-itis primarily in marriages in which one partner is excessively altruistic and the other has narcissist tendencies.  When one partner is “all about me” and the other “all about you,” this in-balance can make for a stable and yet inherently less than ideal partnership.

In a recent PT blog post on love philosophy professor Michael Austin described what I consider to be the essence of narcissistic love relationships. “The danger is that instead of loving my beloved in such a way that her well-being is my ultimate concern, I instead love her expecting or even demanding something in return. I love her so that I’ll be rewarded with her love, her care, and her affection. This is a love motivated out of concern for the self, rather than for the other.”

The flip situation would be appendage-itis. Love characterized by appendage-itis is motivated out of so much concern for the other that the self gets lost.

Put a person who tends toward ‘all about me’ together with a partner who tends toward the ‘all about you’ excessive altruism of appendagitis and you have a perfect match.

Or do you? Narcissists may long for a partner with appendage-itis. The trouble is that a no-self partner becomes less and less alluring for them over time.

As Mary’s husband explained, “There was a phase when all you wanted to talk about was the kids and the house. I began to get bored being with you. It made a huge difference when you and the kids launched the business and you turned out to be such a stellar head of marketing.” Unbalanced love eventually can become unappealing love.

That may be why people with narcissistic tendencies tend to burn through relationships. They eventually feel disinterested or burdened with a spouse who has no life of her own. That’s developmentally normal, just as kids can eventually feel disinterested or burdened by a parent who lives their life totally to take care of them.

Love is enacted in listening.

Healthy lovers balance listening to the other with listening to their own concerns, viewpoints and preferences. I call that kind of stereo two-speaker listening, bilateral listening. If I were to choose one main indicator of mature and healthy love relationships, it would be the extent to which there is two-sided bilateral listening. When both partners listen to their own thoughts and also to their partner’s, and respond to both with equal interest and caring, that’s true love.

Author’s Books

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism, parenting challenges, and marital difficulties. An author of multiple books, articles, audio cd’s and videos, Dr. Heitler is best known in the therapy community for having brought understandings of conflict resolution from the legal and business mediation world to the professional literature on psychotherapy. David Decides About Thumbsucking, Dr. Heitler’s first book, has been recommended for over twenty years by children’s dentists to help young children end detrimental sucking habits. From Conflict to Resolution, an innovative conflict-resolution theory of psychopathology and treatment, has strongly influenced the work of many therapists. The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, and also Dr. Heitler’s  website for couples called, teach the skills for marriage success. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Heitler coaches boards of directors in skills for collaboarative decision-making and, in the world of professional sports, Dr. Heitler serves as mental coach for a men’s doubles tennis team. Education Dr. Heitler graduated from Harvard  University in 1967, and earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from NYU in 1975. Awards and Accomplishments The editors of the master therapist video series Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders selected Dr. Heitler from all the marriage and family therapists in the US to demonstrate the theory and techniques of couple treatment.  Her video from this series, The Angry Couple: Conflict Focused Treatment has become a staple in psychologist and marriage counseling training programs. The editors of the Psychologist Desk Reference, a compendium of therapeutic interventions, selected Dr. Heitler to write the chapter onTreating High Conflict Couples. Other editors of books on counseling theory and techniques have similarly invited her to contribute chapters on her conflict resolution treatment methods. Dr. Heitler’s 1997 book The Power of Two (New Harbinger), which clarifies the communication and conflict resolution skills that sustain healthy marriages, has been translated for publication in six foreign language editions–in China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey, Brazil and Poland. Dr. Heitler has been invited to present workshops on her conflict resolution methods for mediators and lawyers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists throughout the country.  She has been a popular presenter at national professional conferences including AAMFT, APA, SmartMarriages, and SEPI and has lectured internationally in Austria, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Lebanon, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Heitler is frequently interviewed in magazines such as FitnessMen’s HealthWomen’s World, and Parenting.  Her cases have appeared often in the Ladies Home Journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”  She is often interviewed by Denver TV newscasters for her perspectives on psychological aspects of current events. In May, 2004 Dr. Heitler appeared on the CBS Early Show where anchor Harry Smith introduced her as “the most influential person in my life—my therapist.”  He encouraged his viewers similarly to seek therapy when they are emotionally distressed and pre-marital counseling when they are contemplating marriage. Most recently, Dr. Heitler, three of her adult children and one of their friends were awarded a U.S. government Healthy Marriages Initiative grant to produce interactive games for teaching marriage communication and conflict resolution skills over the internet.  See to experience their fun, low-cost, high-impact methods of teaching the skills for a strong and loving marriage. Personal Dr.  Heitler and her husband of almost 40 years are proud parents of four happily married adult children and are grandparents, thus far, of a a baker’s dozen grandchildren.

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