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The Most Important Question in Love and Emotional Growth

Your answer can improve your relationship.

Key points

  • We all do things that keep us from being better persons and partners, and fail to do things that would make us better.
  • Ego, cognitive biases, and prejudice are major restraints on love and growth.
  • Ego-offenses are threats to how we like to think of ourselves and how we want others to think of us.

What keeps me from being a better person and partner?

To feel empowered, the answer cannot blame partners, parents, bosses, governments, or anything else you can’t control.

We all do things that keep us from being better persons and partners. We act to protect our egos more than our values. We regard our biases and personal prejudices as revealed truth. We project our weaknesses and shortcomings onto others. We behave unfairly without thinking about it.

We also fail to do things that would make us better persons and partners. We’re not as compassionate, kind, and supportive as we would like to be, due to low energy, lack of desire, fear of loss, and self-obsession.

All the above restrain us from being better persons and partners. Achieving emotional growth and successful love relationships requires reducing these and any other restraints.

Choose Values Over Ego

We’re born with an inclination to form humane values, a sense that the well-being of others (as perceived through their emotional displays), is important. An early discovery in the psychology of child development was known to parents since the beginning of time: Distress in caregivers evokes distress in infants.

We’re not born with ego. Functionally speaking, ego is how we prefer to regard ourselves and how we want others to regard us. It emerges thinly in early childhood, expands significantly, if precariously, in adolescence, and stabilizes in the late twenties.

Ego-offenses are threats to how we like to think of ourselves, in terms of status, talents, and authority. We’re susceptible to ego-offenses because we’re not always as smart, skilled, attractive, successful, considerate, fair, or moral as we like to think we are.

Though values are more central to the sense of self, ego disputes and value disagreements can be equally intense. The hard-wired threat-detector embedded in the central nervous system to keep us safe from harm is commandeered in modern times to protect the ego. No longer about the mere loss of group status or mating opportunity, ego-threats can seem wrought with danger.

Perceived ego offenses trigger and aggravate arguments in love relationships. Partners who perceive ego threats feel entitled to punish disagreement, usually by withholding affection. In love relationships, withholding affection can feel like rejection, betrayal, or abuse. Ego-defense breeds resentment, contempt, and eventual detachment.

A sure sign that your distress is due to an ego-offense is the perception that you’re disrespected and have an urge to retaliate or punish. When acting on values, you want to find out why someone is perceiving you with less respect. Is it because you’re inadvertently coming off as arrogant, entitled, or insensitive? Or is it hurt or poor emotional regulation on the part of the disrespectful person?

Driven by values, conflict is always respectful; respect for human dignity is a core value. Disagreements can be disappointing but never personally devaluing. When we don’t feel devalued, there’s no motivation to devalue.

Another sign that you’re acting on ego instead of values is defending behavior that violates your values. Defensiveness minimizes the effects of behavior with focus on excuses or explanations: “I (hurt your feelings/lied/cheated) because I was (stressed/tired/impaired/disrespected at work/had a bad childhood).”

Ego defense guarantees that, under the conditions cited in the explanation or excuse, the offending behavior will recur.

When driven by values, we renounce, without qualification or conditions, behavior that hurts loved ones. And we state how we’ll stay true to our values in the future: “I’m sorry for the pain I caused. The next time I feel (stressed/tired/impaired/disrespected at work/driven to act out reactions to my childhood) I’ll focus on your well-being and how important you are to me.”

Yet another sign that we’re defending ego instead of acting on values is the urge to make counteraccusations: “What about all the times you were unfair and hurt my feelings!”

Counteraccusations reduce arguments to playground status: “It takes one to know one.”

The best that playground tactics can prove is that you’re both worse off than you thought.

Driven by values, arguments are sincere, not manipulative or calculated to “win": “I want to be fair, but I know I have blind spots. Please help me understand how to be fairer.”

The most telling sign that you’re driven by ego is judging yourself and others by hierarchical standards: You’re better than (or not as good as) others. This usually hidden attitude comes out in disagreements; you feel intellectually and morally superior (or inferior) to those who disagree with you.

Values are about humane equality: You’re equal to all, superior to none.

Part II of this post will show how to reduce cognitive biases, increase perspective-taking, and overcome projection and restraints of inaction.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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