The World Doesn’t Need More Selfless Women: On the “selfish” decision to leave my husband.
Ashley Cleland
Ashley Cleland • Dec 09

The World Doesn’t Need More Selfless Women: On the “selfish” decision to leave my husband.

By Ashley Cleland

I blew up my life this week. I’d been thinking about it for a while, though my inner knowing was constantly whispering to me “Not This,” I didn’t expect to actually leave my husband. I made a commitment four years ago to be his wife and I was great at being a wife. He was kind, told me I was beautiful often, and we had a cute dog.

My life was fine.

As an enneagram 2 (the helper) and a woman, I’ve internalized all these messages about loyalty, commitment, and sacrifice. I believed that these things were essential to being a good person at any cost. I believed they were more important than living my truth or my own happiness. I was fine with fine for my one precious life.

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I tried to be fine with the life I had because it would be selfish to uproot my husband and to put my desires first.

The truth is that I am pretty gay. Not even pretty gay, I’ll say very gay. I tried to outrun this truth, especially since I finally came out to myself after I was already married to a man. I tried to be fine with the life I had because it would be selfish to uproot my husband and to put my desires first. I was loyal and I held that as one of the key virtues that showed the world I was a good person. Then I simmered for too long in an unhealthy stew of resentment and longing for the sake of selflessness. I finally boiled over, and here we are. (*Gestures to the fantastic mess I have made of my life.*)

I have so many women in my life who are held hostage by their gifts, unable to share them with themselves or set boundaries for fear of being called ‘selfish.’ We are rewarded for selflessness, the bigger the sacrifice we can make for our families, our kids, or our jobs, the better.

We don’t know how she does it all, the world nods approvingly. That’s just what women do, I hear my friends say in a million different ways.

Even Charles Darwin claimed that women have “greater tenderness and less selfishness” than men. Like, just innately. Because we are women, we must be tender and giving. I can’t help but scoff a bit at his conclusion, despite how very tender I am as a human woman in the world.

A neuroscience study also recently showed that women get more chemical reward in their brains for being generous than men, but scientists can’t say why. 

A neuroscience study also recently showed that women get more chemical reward in their brains for being generous than men, but scientists can’t say why. While I don’t think this is purely biological, the fact that Darwin and neuroscientists have something to say about this speaks to how deeply the socialization of selflessness runs for women. “We know that girls and women are socially expected to behave in different ways from boys and men. We encourage girls to be kinder, gentler, and more generous because these are seen as female virtues,” says Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong.

As someone who is very recently out, I can confirm that socialization is a hell of a drug. It is powerful and the messages we internalize can very well influence how we perceive our reality. It is no wonder so many women feel that selflessness is a mandatory part of womanhood.

Glennon Doyle’s latest book, Untamed, helped me see this. Having recently had my own Abby Wambach moment (read the book, you won’t be disappointed), I can’t be more grateful for her words. I listened to my knowing and I took action, socialized selflessness be damned.

Here’s what she says about how the world doesn’t need more selfless women:

“When women lose themselves, the world loses its way. We do not need more selfless women. What we need right now is more women who have detoxed themselves so completely from the world’s expectations that they are full of nothing but themselves. What we need are women who are full of themselves. A woman who is full of herself knows and trusts herself enough to say and do what must be done. She lets the rest burn.” — Glennon Doyle

And boy, did I let the rest burn.

I’m still surprised at myself since a former version of me would rather set myself on fire than hurt someone. But I realized that sometimes you have to break someone else’s heart to stop breaking your own. My husband deserved someone who could be all in, not a selfless martyr, even if it means temporary pain for now. The truth is you can’t be loyal to someone if you are disloyal to yourself. They will only get a piece of you.

So to all the women out there who are like me, who have been socialized into crushing selflessness, I see you.

It is my hope for you that you’ll trust yourself and the wisdom you have about your own life, even if others don’t understand.

It is my hope for you that you’ll make yourself a priority, especially when it's easier to melt into selfless martyrdom.

It is my hope for you that you’ll make the choices you need to be your most free, untamed self.

I’m with you along the way.

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