Disappointment is the hardest emotion to deal with in a relationship. It’s easier to get angry than to feel disappointed. But here’s the paradox: Acknowledging your disappointment can deepen your love while anger can destroy it. Let me explain.
In my many years of doing couples therapy I’ve noticed a pattern common to many couples: the tendency to take offense at the partner’s behavior. Much has been written about how to take care not to offend. But a crucial factor often overlooked is how the offended partner responds. Does he or she blast the offender with hateful accusations or withdraw and give him or her the “silent treatment,” becoming distant, unavailable and scornful? Neither response helps.
Taking offense could be a reaction to something the other says that is experienced as disrespectful or uncaring. It might be a disclosure of something withheld and now revealed. It might be an admission of something that took place before the couple met. It could also be a natural response to a partner’s genuinely abusive behavior: an obvious insult, a dismissive gesture, a blatant lie or even a betrayal.
But what’s the value of taking offense and punishing the partner? I’ve seen couples where the offended partner holds the grudge, not just for days or weeks but years—never forgiving. He or she becomes the party who is “wronged,” and now the abused becomes the abuser. The original offender remains the guilty party, continually paying penance for the “crime.” Then both become offended and abusive and on and on goes the vicious cycle.
Clearly, taking offense at a partner’s behavior has a terrible impact on a relationship. Punishment doesn’t resolve anything. It keeps the original wound from healing and it festers under the surface. The couple stays emotionally distant, stuck in a pattern of resentment, guilt, shame and distrust.
How can this be resolved? How can two people who want to stay together learn from their pain and move on to enjoy the emotional and sexual intimacy that is the gift of being a loving couple?
Let’s look at why is it easier to feel angry than disappointed. When you’re angry you feel justified in lashing out at your partner; you don’t feel like a victim but like an assertive, take-charge kind of person. Some people even feel powerful by staying a victim. They feel entitled to be hurt and wounded so the other will feel guilty and be compromising. But passive aggression and shaming poisons a relationship, drop-by-drop, day-by-day.
If you can see yourself in these examples, look to see how these strategies may come from your childhood—how you may have witnessed your parents dealing with their upset in the same way. If so, you may have learned to do what they did. On the other hand, if you saw them take abuse from each other, you may have learned to be reactive, and make your partner pay, not just for his or her own mistakes, but for the mistakes your parents made that still haunt you.
To allow yourself to be disappointed is difficult because you’re acknowledging that your partner is not the perfect man or woman who completes you. You don’t have the ideal you had hoped for. The man or woman you’re committed to is a flawed human being, much like yourself. Like all of us.
To accept that and allow yourself to be disappointed, allows you to have compassion—not only for the man or woman you are committed to—but also to have compassion for yourself. The feeling of self-compassion is different from self-pity. Self-pity perpetuates seeing yourself as a victim and is a leading symptom or even cause of depression. Self-compassion is a form of self –love; it’s the capacity for self-nurturing and acceptance.
This is the paradox of feeling disappointment rather than angry: when you accept your partner for the way he or she is, as a limited human being like yourself, you can feel empathy for him or her. And your acceptance can help him or her to change. But you have to change as well. When you’re willing to work it out and forgive you cancel the debt that separates you and you can move on with love. And if you can’t do it by yourself, get a therapist to help. Either way, you get to be part of the solution to the problem, rather than part of the problem.