As fast as things can change in our world today, sometimes you need to admit you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. This is true even where love is concerned.
Do you find yourself looking for a really good way to improve your marriage? Here’s a thought: Just admit that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing when it comes to making a deep intimate relationship work in the cultural and economic craziness of the early 21st century.
Presenting that kind of honest admission to your partner will free you from the heavy burden of defending your ego when your unstated assumptions about how relationships should work, don’t. In this rapidly changing cultural context of intimate relations, how can you possibly have the final answer? Most importantly, it lets you to face those feelings of inadequacy that motivate growth. After all, don’t we all want our intimate relationships to work?
Those negative feelings you have from time to time are a significant part of human motivational systems. Those uncomfortable feelings attract attention to something that’s wrong or not working well and drive you to take action and move towards your desired goal. Strangely enough, feelings of inadequacy fuel learning in almost all areas of human enterprise—except love. In intimate relationships, those very same feelings translate into a message that tells us that we’re unlovable or that the way we love isn’t good enough. Instead of being inducements to learn and improve, they become definitions of the one’s self; if you feel inadequate, you are inadequate. Tell me you haven’t felt that way from time to time.
During our life we develop ways—some successful and some desperate—to dodge those feelings of inadequacy, mostly by blaming them on our partners or friends. Arguments in intimate relationships unvaryingly point out all the ways the other person seems lacking. You might do it explicitly; “I found a checklist in the newest/best, self–help book, that proves you have a damn personality disorder, “or indirectly; “I am concerned that I’m not getting my needs met in this relationship.”
Regardless of how you do it, in love relationships, feelings of inadequacy should do more than motivate learning. They simply must stimulate a gut-level compassion that makes the two of you more sensitive and responsive to each other. All the other paths lead to dead ends. And past a certain age, you have tried most of them already.
The inadequacy you felt the first time you heard your baby’s suffering touched off in you a powerful drive to comfort them, right? Satisfying that drive was the only way you could feel competent as a parent. If you tried to avoid that awful feeling, or worse, blamed it on your distraught child, you wouldn’t have felt the same desperate drive to provide care.
If you’ve had more than one child, you know that comforting them is a little bit different with each one. The feeling of inadequacy you experienced the first few times your baby cried gave rise to compassion that sensitized you to the needs of that particular child. How many parents can hear the cries of a stranger’s child and can’t tell the difference between distress, fear, and hunger? We don’t teach our babies how to be comforted; each child teaches us how to comfort them as long as we don’t try to avoid feeling inadequate. And don’t try and kid me… I know in the beginning you felt as inadequate as the rest of us.
Like parenting, 21st century relationships require extensive on-the-job training. To make them work the way we want, we need to learn how to tolerate feeling “wanting” long enough for the discomfort to stimulate the behavior that brings about improvement, appreciation, connection, or your desire to protect. Look, we’re all different, so loving behavior will look different in each couple. Everyone has to learn how to sustain love for his or her specific partner. Not the ideal, or a paperback version of how people should react but realistically learn what works for the two of you. Sometimes the most loving thing you can say to your partner is:
“Show me how to love you.”
Now you are beginning to wonder how you use those feelings of inadequacy to make intimate/love relationships better. Here are some thoughts on that.
First: Both people need to admit that they don’t know how the hell to be in a relationship in the first place.
Second: Ask your partner how to love him or her and teach your partner how to love you.
Third: Develop and agree to a strategy regarding conflict, i.e., how to let your partner know when you feel inadequate.
Acknowledging your feelings of inadequacy lessens the destructive urge to be defensive while giving your partner a chance to do the same thing. In the process, you can come together and select a nonverbal signal to communicate that feeling—a touch, a gentle eye contact, or maybe just reaching out your hand. Whatever works for you.
If you let feelings of inadequacy do their job unhindered, those very feelings will remind you that your caring for each other is more important than your fleeting disagreement. More importantly, they will motivate you to learn how to love each other.
Now isn’t that worth a little discomfort?