The Selfish Cow is the most straightforward and the boldest of all of the cows. She wants to tell you that staying married is unselfish and getting divorced is selfish. She shows up everywhere, sometimes hiding in plain sight (a neat trick for a gal who weighs 1000 pounds!). You will find her skulking behind comments your family and friends make, in popular media, even grazing in the back of your mind. You may not yet recognize her, but after you read this chapter you won’t be able to stop noticing her all around you.
Tipping over this cow is not a defense of selfishness, only a recognition that divorcing is not inherently a more selfish choice than staying married.
A common adjective applied to people choosing divorce is "selfish", as in: "You are selfish to break your vows to me just because you think that you can make a better life without me!" or "You are selfish to pursue your own desires and happiness at the expense of your children." The Selfish Cow is an enthusiastic promoter of this stereotype. She rejects the idea that we are all to some degree selfish, in that our personal happiness is what we work hardest to maximize regardless of marital status.
One of the emotions that the Selfish Cow exploits is fear of the pain that results from ending a marriage. Sometimes when people consciously or subconsciously do the calculus, they decide that the possible benefit of finding greater happiness outside of a dysfunctional marriage is not worth suffering the pain associated with leaving a familiar situation. Often the low-grade, persistent ache of staying married is easier to manage on any given day that the brief but highly concentrated awfulness of leaving. People who make this choice are particularly vulnerable to the Selfish Sacred Cow. The vulnerability works like this: "I am not happy in my marriage, but I am not leaving. The reason I'm not leaving is mostly because I think that the pain of leaving will outweigh the pain of staying. That doesn't sound like a great choice when I phrase it like that, though. I would rather tell myself that I am staying because it is the noble and unselfish thing for me to do. If that is true, then people who make a different choice (to seek a divorce) are acting selfishly. Q.E.D." It is from this type of logic that Sacred Cows are born.
Our society has some code phrases for "you are selfish to get divorced," and one of these is "marriage is hard work." The implication is that the person choosing divorce is too weak or selfish to do the hard work of marriage. The Selfish Cow loves this message, which is one of the reasons why it has become so deeply ingrained in our culture.
What the Selfish Cow actually cares about most is not the hard work itself, but maintaining the marriage. Like all of the Sacred Cows, she is using the tools at her disposal to make people feel bad about divorce. She promotes hard work as a virtue because she knows that nobody wants to think about him or herself as lazy. She doesn't expect martyrdom in other areas of life, however. She recognizes that some rewards are not worth the effort, and that some rewards are unattainable through hard work. Nevertheless, when it comes to marriage, she believes that every relationship is worth an infinite amount of effort and that the effort should continue even when it cannot cause a square peg to fit into a round hole.
When the Selfish Cow accuses unhappy couples of not working hard enough, she is trying to shift attention away from unsolvable problems and put the blame on "lazy spouses." This has two effects that are pleasing to the Selfish Cow: first, it means that there is no excuse for anyone to divorce, since she is proposing that harder work can fix all problems. Second, it causes people to see themselves as failures when their marriages end, creating extra incentive not to "give up" on an unhappy marriage.