By Steven Stosny, published on November 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 1, 2011
Need a sure way to improve your marriage? Here's one: Admit that you don't know what you're doing when it comes to making an intimate relationship work in the cultural and economic volatility of the 21st century.
Making such an honest admission will free you from the burden of defending your ego when your tacit assumptions about how relationships should work inevitably lead you astray in the rapidly changing cultural context of intimate unions. More important, it allows you to embrace the natural feelings of inadequacy that motivate learning.
Negative feelings are an integral part of the human motivational system. They attract attention to something wrong in order to prompt corrective action.
Strangely, feelings of inadequacy stimulate learning in just about all areas of human endeavor—except love. In intimate relationships, they seem to tell us that we're unlovable or that the way we love isn't good enough. Rather than stimuli to learn, they become definitions of the self—if you feel inadequate, you are inadequate.
We develop desperate ways to circumvent feelings of inadequacy—mostly by blaming them on our partners. Arguments between intimates invariably point out all the ways in which the other seems inadequate. We may do it explicitly—"I found a checklist in a self-help book that proves you have a personality disorder"—or implicitly: "I feel like I'm not getting my needs met in this relationship."
In love relationships, feelings of inadequacy must do more than motivate learning. They have to stimulate a gut-level compassion that makes us more sensitive and responsive to each other.
The inadequacy you felt the first time you heard your infant's distressed cry provided a powerful motivation to give comfort, which was the only way you could feel competent as a parent. Had you tried to avoid that uncomfortable feeling or, worse, blamed it on the distressed child, you would not have felt the same urge to provide care.
If you've had more than one baby, you know that the comforting process is a little different with each. The feeling of inadequacy you experienced the first few times your baby cried out gave rise to compassion that sensitized you to the needs of that particular child. We do not teach our babies how to be comforted; each child teaches us how to comfort him, as long as we don't try to avoid feeling inadequate.
Like parenting, modern relationships require considerable on-the-job training. To make them work, we must tolerate feeling deficient long enough for the discomfort to stimulate behavior to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect. Because we're all different, loving behavior will look a little different in each couple. Everyone has to learn how to sustain love for his or her specific partner, not an ideal or a book version of how people should react. The most loving thing you can say to your partner is, "Show me how to love you."
How to use feelings of inadequacy to make love relationships better? First, both parties must admit that they don't know how to have a love relationship. Second, ask your partner how to love him or her, and let her/him know how to love you.
Third, prearrange a strategy for conflict to let your partner know when you feel inadequate. Acknowledging feelings of inadequacy mitigates the unproductive urge to be defensive, while giving your partner a chance to do the same. Agree on a nonverbal gesture to communicate the feeling—a touch, gentle eye contact, or just reaching out your hand.
If you let feelings of inadequacy do their job, they will remind you that your caring for each other is more significant than your momentary disagreement. More important, they will open you to learning how to love each other.
Read Steven Stosny's PT blog Anger in the Age of Entitlement.