“When I give, I give myself.” These profound words by famed poet and humanist Walt Whitman speak of something which goes beyond feelings and gestures, but to a state of sharing, and of being. Today, you might simply recognize it as ‘selfless love’. In the modern world, where nobody has time to be bothered about how their actions and words affect the people around them, acts of selfless love might even catch you by surprise. The prevalence of fleeting and less-committed relationships has made displays of selfless love a rarity.
There are still many couples who practice selfless love in their relationships by putting their partner’s needs before them. Don’t believe us? Let’s ask some of our friends for examples of selfless love in their relationships: “It was that day when I watched him go above and beyond to do things which would make me happy. That is when I knew he really cared for me”, says Alia, a 25-year-old medical student.
Samira, a 34-year-old homemaker, told us, “My husband was there by my side through the weekend, caring for me when I got a bad cold. He canceled his plans with his friends and spent his time nursing me back to health.”
What Is Selfless Love?
To be able to adhere to the high standards of selfless love, you first need to understand what it is. Does selfless love mean putting your partner first even at the peril to yourself? How do you define and acknowledge the line between selfless love and self-destruction in the name of love? Let’s go ahead and break down the term ‘selfless love’ to understand it.
To be selfless is to do things without caring or worrying about how such an act might benefit you. It is the separation of your consciousness from the path which takes you down thoughts about yourself, your feelings, how you might gain something, etc. You do not care about the ‘self’ rather do things that will help and benefit others. It is an act of caring which moves past the ordinary, expected actions and gestures, focusing solely on loving others.
In relationships particularly, selfless love arises from a place of caring and appreciation. An act of selfless love will not expect reciprocation, it will not come attached with conditions. The stronger and deeper your relationship develops, the more selfless love should assimilate as an instinct in your psyche. Your partner may not notice or appreciate your act in the manner you expected, but that won’t faze you. Selfless love, after all, shows how much you care, without needing to show anything.
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We hear again from Alia, “My boyfriend and I were visiting our local park one afternoon. The weather was a little hot, but it was the blazing sun in my eyes that was bothering me. I was trying to read a book under the shade of a tree while my boyfriend was playing with some dogs. Suddenly, I could feel the brightness reduce as some shade fell over me.
“I looked up to see my boyfriend, standing straight and playing with the dogs in front of me. He would throw the ball for the dogs, but not move from the spot, making sure I got enough shade and was comfortable. I knew the heat was getting to him, but he still stood right there. His act of selfless love left me in awe.”
This is a wonderful, fitting example of selfless love. In contrast to this, selfish love is where one focuses on their own self even when loving someone. By asking for something in return, doing something conditionally or only when it would benefit you more than the other person, one exhibits the characteristics of selfish love. Selfish love may arise from a place of narcissism, deceit, or plain thoughtlessness. Such an outlook gets the other person thinking about your ulterior motives, and lowers their trust in you.
13 Traits That Distinguish Selfless Love From Selfish Love
We have a general understanding of what selfless love is now. It is understanding, accepting, and constant. One important observation is that selfless love should not be self-harming. Becoming a people-pleaser is detrimental to your own ambitions and goals, sidetracking you from what is important. To provide selfless love is to grow together, loving yourself first and then also caring for others. Selfless love is beneficial for all while putting to much attention on yourself will push you toward selfish love.
Whether it is with your boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse, friend or family, only selfless love can provide you with satisfaction and personal growth. But it is especially in your closest relationship – the one with your partner – that selfless love becomes a natural habit, an instinct for you. Let’s take a look at certain traits that distinguish selfless love from selfish love:
When you or your partner do something motivated by selfless love, you don’t have expectations of anything in return, whether through appreciation or a reciprocal act. Your intention is the betterment and welfare of your partner.
If what you are doing is an act of selfless love, to you it will seem like a simple, ordinary thing that you don’t have to think twice about or weigh up in your mind too much. It is neither an accomplishment nor a way to earn ‘brownie points’. You don’t think about what the other person could do for you, just about their happiness. It would be better to leave behind the mentality of selfish love in which you’re expecting something in return for your actions if you want yours to be selfless love.
“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need”. Probably one of the most recognizable lyrics in the history of music, this line from the famous song by The Rolling Stones is a straightforward explanation of what compromise stemming from selfless love feels like.
Focusing not just on your desires and plans but including and accommodating those of others is an act of selfless love. The willingness to compromise, to amalgamate plans, or simply to meet someone halfway is a trait that selfish love lacks.
To compromise effectively, you find a middle ground, which can satisfy the requirements of all parties. Things like splitting the chores, delaying plans so you can be with your partner, cooking something that both you and your partner like are but a few examples of acts of selfless love by making small compromises to show your appreciation for someone.
We all have that one friend who only wants to eat at a restaurant of their choice or someone who will not change their plans even if it is inconvenient for the other person. Hence resorting to acts of selfish love which is harmful to their relationships.
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When you show selfless love, you care about the important things for both you and your partner. Yes, you might have plans or have to make compromises, but if something related to your partner calls for your attention urgently, you make sure to prioritize it above the less important things. Keeping in mind the things that matter to both you and your partner, you decide what needs to be dealt with first and get to it immediately. You care for yourself and your partner in this way, looking after the welfare of everyone involved.
Juliette, a 41-year-old mother of 3, told us, “When I was pregnant with our second child, my husband was always there with me for the doctor’s appointments. I remember how, late in the pregnancy, he had to convince his workplace’s management to reschedule an important meeting. But he made sure that it happened and accompanied me to the doctor’s clinic, making sure I had everything I needed and was comfortable before he returned to his work.”
Everyone has their fair share of trouble and issues in their life. When it comes to people who are close to you, like your partner, these also start to affect you and play a part in your life. Selfless love accepts all that your partner has to go through and experience while being caring and accommodating. More so than with anyone else, you try to put yourself in their shoes, see how different things are affecting your partner, and try to help out any way you can.
Sometimes, you might not be able to help out. Your partner might have, say, a difficult work situation or have to deal with the loss of a parent. Acknowledging your partner’s feelings, giving room for them to express their emotions, and doing what would be better for your partner in that situation signifies that you’re showing acts of selfless love. This goes a long way in helping them, and you understand them better.
5. Making assumptions (and the benefit of the doubt)
Strong relationships are built on a mutual feeling of trust. If you don’t trust someone, you probably would want to get close to them. So, when you do trust your partner, you should avoid making assumptions about things your partner might have said or done, especially if they are negative and contrary to your partner’s personality. By doing so, you are showing an act of selfless love. It is a good idea to not make assumptions about people, their thoughts and motives in general. You get stuck in a cynical cycle, looking at people through negative lenses, expecting the worst from humanity. It would be very easy for you to get dissuaded, focusing only on yourself, and therefore, showing an act of selfish love.
Circumstances may call for you to assume something about your partner when you can’t speak to them or see things clearly. By trusting in your partner and giving them the benefit of the doubt, any assumptions you have to make are also coming from a place of selfless love. More often than not, you will see that you’re trusting in and making positive assumptions about your partner would be vindicated. Hence distinguishing between selfless love and selfish love.
6. Being present
This is a big one. In selfless love, people learn how to be present, accepting and aware of their partner. They listen to their partner, giving them space without interruptions to portray their thoughts, and do small things to make their partner feel comfortable about sharing.
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Being present does not mean that you have to have your partner’s constant attention or do things that involve both of you. Sometimes your partner might need time and space, maybe a cup of tea or a head massage. Other times they may want to be distracted or taken out. When you listen to your partner and try to understand them, you are putting on your best act of selfless love. This is a great way for you to know your partner better and grow closer to them.
7. Not holding grudges
This is the flip side of the trait of expectations. We all have gone through incidents that left a bitter taste in our mouths, all because a person chose to put out an act of selfish love. Sometimes that thing affects you deeply, and you hold a grudge. By holding grudges you think of how you were wronged, you may be vindicated or have your revenge.
In a trusting relationship where your partner and you are bound by acts of selfless love, you push aside the little unpleasant things or mistakes your partner makes, which you might want to hold on to for later. Just as you don’t keep a list of expectations, you also shouldn’t keep one of the grudges. Forgive, accept, and move forward. Portraying fewer acts of selfish love and more acts of selfless love will only make you a better person.
“I used to keep a mental checklist of all the ways my husband ticked me off. Simple things like not doing a particular chore. I would let it build up and lash out at him every so often. But after a while, I realized this was an act of selfish love which was making me bitter and my husband afraid of speaking openly with me. By leaving my grudges behind, I could remind him of things, which at times he might forget due to work,” recalls Samira.
8. Letting go
Although this trait might seem similar to the ones regarding expectation or grudges, it speaks of something a little more painful aspect of selfless love. Sometimes such situations arise where your partner or loved one has to move away or where you realize that it is not working out as well as it should, for either of you. Whether it is your friend moving away for a better job, incompatibility with your partner, or even watching your children make their own career choices, such circumstances are bound to hit us all some time or the other.
Letting go and walking away is probably one of the most awful things you could imagine. In such a situation, one shouldn’t be selfish and hold on to them but rather approach with acts of selfless love and be happy for the other person. It is better that you accept the situation and do what is optimal, portray selfless love rather than causing the other person to change their decision.
9. Selfless love is free of judgment
Your partner may do something which you aren’t particularly appreciative of. Might even be something that you find unpleasant. In this situation, selfless love will not show judgment or contempt but try to understand the point of view of the other person. Being present and empathetic, you try to see why your partner might have done what they have done which shows how much selfless love you practice. Not judging people and concentrating on your actions instead is good advice for going about life in general but is especially important with a loved one.
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If your partner is showcasing acts of selfish love or maybe not socially correct, you could approach them and speak with them about it. You do not, however, want to come across as judgmental or haughty, but rather as accepting. Talking gently, you may explain to your partner about your misgivings and reasons and help them understand what they can do. Having a discussion is always better than giving someone a lecture. Choosing acts of selfless love over selfish love is always a healthy practice.
10. Not measuring flaws
The uniqueness of every individual is an astounding thing. It is the reason why we like certain people, dislike others and go about interacting with people depending on the situation. Just as everybody has their unique talents and plus-points, we also have flaws. In a relationship, you work together to accommodate each other’s flaws and move ahead together. Being a selfish lover and pointing out or complaining about your partner’s flaws is only going to hurt your relationship.
If you want to love selfishly, go ahead and measure your partner’s flaws. Draw attention to them when you think they are holding you back. See how far that gets you. Loving selflessly will make you a better person, and ignoring or at least not highlighting your partner’s flaws is an important component of it.
11. Being considerate
In a selfless love relationship, you are a team of two. As you grow closer to your partner, you assimilate their goals, ideals and ambitions into your psyche. Even smaller things such as their likes and preferences become ingrained into your system. By keeping these things in mind when you are planning, whether for your future or the present or for normal things through your day which involve or affect your partner, you make decisions that benefit and accommodate both of you.
“Every morning, my boyfriend goes for a run before I’m up. He always picks up a cup of coffee from my favorite coffee shop, as I need my morning pick-me-up. I recently found out that he has changed his running route, but still makes sure to get me my coffee,” says Alia. His acts of selfless love surprise me even today, she added.
12. Growing together
The presence of selfless love leads to a symbiotic, healthy desire to keep moving ahead and become better. Keeping your partner in your thoughts, you start looking toward the future and work on fashioning it into the best possibilities. Knowing that you love your partner selflessly and feeling the reciprocal love coming from your partner, you both try to improve not just your relationship, but the other aspects of your life too. You may even work on things together, and you would have someone you trust unquestioningly, in multiple parts of your life.
A healthy, positive relationship also pushes you toward selfless love for your partner. We know that showing selfless love makes you a better person. With the blooming of the same in your relationship, you condition yourself and support your partner to become better and happier, individually and together.
13. Selfless love is boundless
In the end, selfless love is not about flashy actions or grand gestures. Selfless love is a steady, bubbling stream of warmth and caring which soothes you and excites you, supports you, and comforts you. You don’t keep a count of your actions of selfless love, don’t expect things in return, and become a better person. To grow together, without judgment, be considerate, and be present. All of these wonderful things are possible only through selfless love.
Your love will weather storms, twist and turn like a roller-coaster and climb steadily to greater heights. Sticking through thick and thin is an act of selfless love that does not have any boundaries or edges. It is boundless, ever giving and always considerate. To feel selfless love is one of the warmest feelings you will ever encounter.
Only in selfless love can one grow and blossom into the kind of person one aspires to be. Keeping judgment and negativity aside, seize the moment and be present for whoever matters to you. Through selfless love, your world will become a better place.