When Your Partner’s Got It All: The Conundrum of Romantic Inferiority

10 June 2021 | 6 mins

Romantic inferiority is tough to navigate and may have different origins. But profound love requires sharing, autonomy, and perceived equality, regardless of the differences.

Romantic inferiority is tough to navigate and may have different origins. But profound love requires sharing, autonomy, and perceived equality, regardless of the differences.

Inferiority is a complex issue. When Jonathan Franzen experienced meteoric success after his novel The Corrections became a bestseller, his spouse Kathryn Chetkovich—also an author—penned an admirably candid essay, simply titled Envy. She described in no uncertain terms the ugly emotions she felt in the wake of his moment in the spotlight, and how she would even refuse to have sex with him by way of some distorted sense of punishment. Reflecting on The Corrections’ rapturous reviews, Chetkovich wrote with astonishing clarity:

If I could not be happy, I was ready to make us both miserable.

The inferiority complex is a fascinating psychological phenomenon—especially in a romantic relationship. One partner’s success may benefit the couple collectively in terms of money, reputation, and security—but that doesn’t mean the other isn’t harboring a secret sense of resentment—not to mention shame for feeling that way in the first place. You can just hear their inner monologue eating away at their soul: What the hell is wrong with me? I should be happy for them!

But things are never that straightforward. We are not our partners; and while it’s a blessing of being in a loving relationship to sometimes feel like the two of you are a single entity, in reality, we all cherish profound aspirations utterly unique to us, separate even from that one person we love more than anything in the world.

Romantic inferiority is tough to navigate even when we are prospering. But if the relationship is truly going to work in the long run—if the two of you are to live harmoniously and in total acceptance of one another’s perceived status and renown—then together you must acknowledge the dynamic, discuss its implications—then work out how best to approach the problem.

If you’re the partner suffering from romantic inferiority, hear this: It does not make you a bad person. Envy can dig its claws in when you’re least expecting it. What’s important is recognizing it early, then understanding where it comes from.

A sense of inferiority can have any number of origins:

  • past humiliations
  • negative remarks during one’s upbringing
  • experience of being criticized incessantly and for trivial issues
  • professional or educational setbacks
  • previous instances of discrimination
  • self-perceived shortcomings or inadequacies, be they physical, mental, emotional, financial, or spiritual.

Any one of these issues—never mind a combination thereof—can make man or woman alike think less of themselves. This feeling is often compounded when they enter into a romantic relationship by sheer virtue of its emotional intensity. Love uproots our lives and our beliefs, then discards us in uncharted territory clinging to our past presuppositions of love, relationship roles, and how to balance our own ambitions and dreams with our partner’s.

The healthiest relationships are inevitably those in which both partners have embraced their own individuality as well as each other’s, and made things work despite their differences. They’re a team. When a couple harnesses each partner’s idiosyncrasies, they promote a thriving and enduring romance. If one person’s shy and the other gregarious, no problem: They play off one another, and each comes to the fore depending on the situation. These couples don’t just know each other’s strengths and weaknesses but love one another all the more because of them.

During the honeymoon phase, envy’s unlikely to rear its unsightly head. As the song so timelessly prophesizes:

When your heart’s on fire, you must realize

Smoke gets in your eyes.

Either the feeling occurs only after differences arise, or else it was there all along because of one partner’s lifelong sense of inadequacy, but its implications are not realized until the couple has become properly involved. So whether it’s wealth, talent, prestige, intelligence, friendships, or even happiness itself, contrasts in fundamental aspects of partners’ lives can lead to friction if they’re not addressed.

When we feel unworthy, small, unremarkable in the shadow cast by our partner’s glorious rays, we lose the motivation to power through the resentment and tend to the romance we’re dually responsible for nurturing. Partners experiencing romantic inferiority may become possessive because they can’t comprehend why their spouse stays with them in light of the latter’s supposed superiority. It doesn’t matter how often we’re reassured, encouraged, adored: An impenetrable frost has descended, and the final embers of love snuffed out.

Relationships are delicate. They need care and compassion to flourish. Envy of one’s partner from time to time is perfectly normal, and in a measured amount may even galvanize you to engage in your own self-fulfillment. It’s only when one partner loses sight of their own goals because of the other’s successes that the rot can set in. But as long as you acknowledge those feelings, you can take steps to combat them.

A brand-new study headed by psychologist Kathleen Carswell has shown that personal development significantly boosts not only each partner’s passion for the other but also the quality of their relationship as a whole. When you feel good about one aspect of your life, other aspects are enhanced as well—not least desire for your partner, both sexual and romantic.

When one partner’s successes seem increasingly without parallel in the other’s life, problems can occur. Instead of growing together, the couple is driven apart. That’s why Carswell and colleagues describe personal expansion [as] a double-edged sword for individual wellbeing, simultaneously associated with lower passion, but greater fulfillment of competence needs.

—which is precisely why it can generate envy, impact happiness, and feed the inferiority complex when left unchecked.

Profound love requires sharing, autonomy, and perceived equality, regardless of differences. As soon as one partner starts to consider their spouse (or themselves) superior, problematic comparisons arise where they shouldn’t. But by recognizing and dealing with romantic inferiority early, you can detach yourself from its grasp. And although it’s tough to do so, opening up to your spouse about how you feel can seriously lighten the load. More importantly, this helps them help you change your perspective by reorienting your thought processes and assessing how your lifestyle and goals are affecting your happiness. That way, the two of you come together to tackle a problem—then emerge on the other side, stronger and more profoundly connected than ever.

If an inferiority complex is subduing your relationship or preventing you from finding romance, we can help. Maclynn International is an elite, multi-award-winning matchmaking consultancy, catering to exceptional singles across the globe. Our experts work with singletons from all walks of life, including those whose feelings of inadequacy have impeded their efforts to find true love. Get in touch today, and together we can work through your troubles, get you back on your feet—then help you find a partner to live, grow, and share your dreams within this crazy world.


About the Author

Gina Yannotta

Gina Yannotta is Head Matchmaker & Chief Operating Officer at Maclynn International's New York office. Gina’s unyielding passion for the field, in combination with her extensive experience in matchmaking, has allowed her to orchestrate successful and everlasting relationships amongst her clients. Tasked with running the Manhattan office, Gina utilizes her interpersonal skills and relationship expertise to make a splash in the matchmaking pool, personally connecting her clients with their ultimate match while simultaneously taking advantage of the endless possibilities that NYC offers to its client-base.

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