Are you a “good enough” spouse/partner?
Decades ago, the renowned pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott introduced the important concept of the “good-enough” mother. He described how flexible parenting establishes the conditions (which he called the “holding environment”) for healthy child development—this idea offered a welcome counterpoint to the unrealistic notion of “perfect” mothering: That mythic, maternal sage who could always meet all of her child’s needs.
Child-care experts now agree that any attempts at parenting-perfection (whatever that might look like) is more likely to do harm than good (for all involved). The same caveat holds true for the desire for marital/relationship perfection.
Are You Seeking The Perfect Marriage/Relationship?
Working toward a “good-enough” relationship-mindset can be very helpful for couples trying to create a fulfilling and lasting union. To adopt a “good-enough” marital/relationship-mindset, we must first understand its opposite: Our deepest yearnings for relationship perfection—an unconscious desire that shapes us in profound ways.
Before we explore the idea of a “good-enough” marriage/relationship, let’s first look at the illusion of a “perfect” marriage/relationship.
In the fantasy-world of relationship perfection:
- Your spouse/partner will be perpetually attuned to (and intuit) your needs and desires and s/he will take the appropriate steps (without much delay) required to fulfill your needs;
- Your feelings of infatuation, elation, and mutual openness/acceptance that may have existed early in the relationship will never diminish—you will forever ride the high of new love;
- Your partner will always be excited to see you, and want to spend time with you or, if desired, s/he will give you just the right amount of space you need—in other words, you will never feel lonely or smothered;
- Your spouse/partner will patiently and empathetically listen to and fully grasp your deepest longings, fears, and concerns whenever you need him/her to—you will exist in a perpetual state of feeling understood;
- Your partner’s interests will completely mesh with your own interests (so when you feel like staying home and doing nothing, s/he will be right next to you, wanting nothing more than to do nothing with you; and when you feel like engaging in some activity that you enjoy, s/he will mobilize and enthusiastically join in);
- Your spouse/partner will be in the mood to have sex whenever you’re in the mood;
- Your partner will fulfill all of your sexual needs (from the mundane to the highly erotic).
There is a theme in the above illusions of marital/relationship perfection:
A craving for complete merger and blending with another, a union where our needs and desires take center stage—in other words, the seeking of an omnipresent and omni-available partner who can fulfill the roles of caregiver, friend, lover…
Relationship Expectations: Are we really susceptible to such unrealistic expectations?
And if so, how could this happen? What is it that we really want from our spouses/partners?
Some experts speculate that a continued hope for total union and oneness resides in the depths of our unconscious mind—a powerful fantasy that stems from our earliest interactions with caregivers, shaped by developmental experiences when (as infants) we could not distinguish our own emotional world (our self-experiences) from the people who were caring for us. In essence, we experienced emotional harmony with others during this early and crucial phase of life (a sense of blissful oneness)—and, as adults (whether we’re aware of it or not), we are always re-seeking these experiences.
According to this view, our adult relationships will always involve disappointment—never living up to the unrealistic expectations of complete emotional harmony. In this relationship-fall-from-grace, our spouses/partners will fail us at a fundamental level, never giving us the elusive completeness we once felt at the very beginning of life.
So what does this all mean for me and my relationship?
It’s not easy to determine just how much influence these unconscious fantasies/expectations may have for a particular individual or couple.
Some of us may be trying to recapture this experience of wholeness, chasing past shadows, blaming our partners for their shortcomings in an effort to give reason to our own dissatisfaction, all the while failing to recognize the source of this existential drama. Yet for many, marriage/relationship offers both fulfillment and frustration, with the realistic limitations of long-term love and domestic life existing side-by-side with never-ending hopes for greater connection and satisfaction.
So we may all be seeking a relationship Eden, and to this end place an enormous responsibility onto our partners that can never be realized—demanding a perfection that is, at best, an illusion. Understanding these complex, often unconscious dynamics is a powerful way to start the process of unraveling the threads of our longings for completion and the relationship frustrations that seem to be an inherent part of the human condition.
Don’t forget to check out my article, Fighting For The Good-Enough Relationship, where I discuss the features of a “good-enough” relationship that couples should consciously work toward in an effort to counter our unconscious desires for the anticipated bliss associated with merger with another.
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Until next time!
Dr. Rich Nicastro