The Myth of Self-Sacrificing Love: What’s the Truth?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is self-sacrificing love genuine? Where can it lead?

In The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck asserts that self-sacrificing love is a myth. It’s not genuine love. If you believe it is, you are likely to end up with two destructive results: social sadomasochism and destructive nurturing.

Read more to learn about this view of self-sacrificing love.

The Myth of Self-Sacrificing Love

If you live according to the belief of self-sacrificing love, you end up with two problematic results.

Result #1: Love Becomes Social Sadomasochism 

Social sadomasochism is the unconscious desire to hurt or be hurt emotionally in interpersonal relationships. Sometimes, when we continually accept mistreatment, we do so because we are getting something out of that experience. For example, if we are mistreated in childhood, in adulthood, we may become attached to the moral superiority of our role in an abusive dynamic. We may also accept mistreatment in the name of “being loving,” seeking to martyr ourselves. Regardless, the motivation for these behaviors isn’t genuine love. In reality, we’re seeking a type of revenge on the people who first made us feel mistreated (generally our parents), and the behavior is motivated by something closer to hatred.

Consider the woman who repeatedly goes back to an abusive partner as long as they beg for another chance. On the surface, she speaks about the suffering of mistreatment, but on a deeper level, she may put up with it because it makes her feel like “the good guy.” In order to maintain that sense of self, she needs her partner to be “the bad guy.” The partner begging for another chance serves that goal because they highlight (if only for a moment) her moral superiority. So-called self-sacrificing love of this sort is an illusion.

Result #2: Love Becomes Destructive Nurturing 

In destructive nurturing, the nurturer is wearing a mask of love, but their deeper intention is to ensnare another in codependency in order to meet their own needs (not maliciously, but out of a need to be needed).  

Anytime you consider what you are doing to be “for” someone, you are not taking full accountability for your own choices. Parents who tell their children they aren’t grateful enough for everything being done for them could be lacking in genuine love, because if they feel resentful towards their children for being “ungrateful,” their loving behavior may not be coming from healthy intentions. What you choose to do for others is often done to fulfill your own needs. As stated before, this is not necessarily malicious. We engage in loving behavior because it feels good and right to be loving. Generally, the effect of that behavior is positive for the person receiving it as well. The behavior can be interpreted as self-sacrificing love, but this is not genuine love.

The Truth: Love Is Self-Replenishment

Self-sacrificing love is a myth. Love should not be martyrdom or masochism. Genuine love requires an extension of the self, not a total sacrifice of it. The goal is to self-replenish. It’s not that genuine love is unselfish, and nonlove is selfish. Genuine love can be both selfish and unselfish. The difference is that with nonlove, the goal is anything but spiritual growth, whereas, with genuine love, the overall goal is always spiritual growth.

The Myth of Self-Sacrificing Love: What’s the Truth?

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  • The four key elements in the path to enlightenment
  • The importance of spiritual competence in relation to mental health
  • How you can face challenges and grow through hardship

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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