Mutual Egoism: The Key To a Rational Relationship

by | Aug 13, 2023

Each partner personally values the other because they possess admirable qualities, such as integrity, and they share common values and interests.

The key to romantic happiness Is not sacrifice. Sacrificing everything to your partner or wanting them to sacrifice everything for you both undermine romance. Psychologically, “me only (narcissism) versus  or combined with you only (altruism)” is a lethal combination.

How does this typically play out in the end?

Traditionally, the recipient of the sacrifice is the man, who is a narcissist. Narcissism is not the same as self-interest. The narcissist is insecure and is in desperate need of constant attention and worship. This makes two-way intimacy impossible. The giver is usually the woman, who is an altruist. Altruism does not mean consideration for others or helpfulness. It means you live only for others, never for yourself (see Assertion 27).

The narcissist desperately needs continuous worship and usually does not get enough from just one person, so he may compulsively seek others. Even sex with his spouse is just for his own pleasure, and he may seek it with others, too. The altruist feels invisible, tires of never feeling free to pursue her own personal values, does not enjoy sex (with him), gets depressed, and may seek out others, too—or take to alcohol or drugs.

The end may be a bitter divorce, disconnected parallel lives or depression.

For a better formula see Locke & Kenner (2011). The answer is mutual egoism based on mutual valuing. This means that each partner personally values the other because they possess admirable qualities, such as integrity, and they share common values and interests. Each respects and supports the other’s values so that, as much as possible, each gets what they want in romance and life. Within that framework, they love and support each other because they each consider their partner to be a selfish, irreplaceable value. (If your partner is not a selfish value, you must have linked up out of pity—a huge mistake.) Being with their partner brings them happiness and being a source of joy for their partner also brings them happiness. Mutual valuing means that you both enjoy sex:  getting pleasure yourself and giving your partner pleasure.

Possible evidence that sacrificing to your romantic partner does not work is that fewer people, especially women in the U.S., are getting married than in the past. Could this in part be because they do not want to be altruists, and the expectation often is that they must be?

An important point needs to be made here: love is not a gift. It needs to be earned. If someone offers to love you causelessly, it cannot mean much of anything. It could even be interpreted as insulting, because it would not be based on them knowing anything about you. People want to be loved as individuals, for a reason or reasons, e.g., their moral character, their personality style, their looks (but not only their looks), their ability to understand you and share common values, their sense of purpose, their ability to manage their life, their ability to make you feel visible, their philosophy, their outlook on life, their tastes in art and literature and outside activities, their attitude towards money, etc.

I do not mean to make mutual egoism sound effortless. It isn’t. It requires a lot of thinking, discussion, and problem solving in every sphere of life: child-care and rearing, dual career management, financial planning, communication, lifestyle, sexual preferences, and leisure activities. Much of this should be worked out before making any long-term commitment. Choosing a partner who will bring happiness requires a lot of thought. (Note: I believe that the same basic principles noted by Dr. Kenner and me in The Selfish Path to Romance apply whether the relationship is heterosexual or other.)

If helping your partner to be happy does not interest you, and your partner has no interest in your happiness, you had better look for a new partner.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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