In graduate school I learned that happy, fulfilling relationships exist when people prioritize and care about the happiness of others more than their own. Particularly in romantic relationships, this must be evident in both people in the relationship, not just one of them. This makes sense when I reflect upon my recent deployment to Afghanistan, conversations with returning Veterans, and previous therapeutic interactions because I can’t help but notice relationship issues revolving around the theme of egocentrism. So I have to ask: Are the most recent generations doomed to strained, unfulfilling relationships due to the increasingly popular egocentric mindset?
I spoke with one Army Veteran who says his marriage over the years has taught him, “take care of yourself because no one else is going to.” I think this is a tragic lesson to learn in a marriage! How sad! Reinforcing this lesson, he returned home from a dangerous year in Afghanistan only to have his wife start an argument in the car in front of their young children over the route he chose to drive home from a restaurant. I understood his point of view completely: He just survived a year of combat and the person who is supposed to love and support him more than anyone else in the world wants to criticize him and argue? About something so trivial? In front of the kids? And he hasn’t even been home a full day yet? And then as soon as he’s home he’s expected to “relieve” her of household duties because she needs to rest and recuperate? What about his rough year? In what ways did she demonstrate she’s happy he made it home alive? In what ways did she convey love to him or appreciation for having him back? In what ways did she recognize what he had just been through for the past year? He didn’t get even one day to simply rest and enjoy his family without his wife’s egocentrism being thrust in his face once again.
I’ve heard more than one military spouse complain about how hard their lives are while their spouse is deployed. “I have to take care of the kids” “I have to keep the house clean” “I’ve had to manage all the bills.” I’ve heard more than one say “I can’t wait for him/her to get home to give me a break.” I just can’t believe the egocentrism—what do they think is going on overseas? Don’t they realize their spouse is doing all of that and more? Don’t they realize the living conditions? Don’t they realize how much their spouse may be missing them? Don’t they realize the horrific things their spouse might be experiencing? Don’t they picture their spouse shivering in the cold or sweating in the heat? Do they seriously think they need a break more so than the returning Veteran? Really?
My 86-year-old Nana recently overheard a friend of mine saying that having kids was the hardest thing she’s ever done and how difficult it was. Nana shared with me later that she was shocked to hear this and my mom agreed with her. I told them that just about all my friends say the same thing. They just couldn’t believe this. They both said that raising their children was one of the most enjoyable times in their lives and there was nothing “hard” about it. They said things such as losing sleep or listening to crying was just part of the experience of being a mother. Nana suggested that perhaps people my age haven’t truly experienced anything difficult in their lives so, lacking perspective, yes—having constant responsibility and obligation must seem difficult.
Could this be right—do people have it so easy in life that there is a skewed feeling of stress and difficulty? I suppose so, if the most difficult thing someone has ever faced is a busy workday, for example. Are we so concerned with what is “stressful” to us that we can’t see the needs of those around us? Are we so consumed with wishing someone would relieve our stressors that we don’t see the opportunities to help others?
For returning Veterans who have experienced atrocious living conditions, heard rockets whistle over their heads at night, felt bullets whiz past them or even pierce their skin, or have seen starvation, death, and sickness, it’s almost comical to hear people complain about day-to-day things back home. But is this egocentric too? Not recognizing another’s point of view is a huge problem in any form of relationship. Having sincere, respectful conversations about one another’s experiences and expectations will greatly help to meet each other’s needs and to convey interest. Specifically with returning Veterans, it’s important for loved ones to attempt to imagine what they may have been through and understand they may need time to relax and feel normal. Don’t immediately barrage them with chores and requests, but gradually get back to a normal routine—don’t demand it all at once upon their arrival home. Conveying to them that all you care about is that they made it home safely will go a long way in helping them to readjust.
Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.