Disappointments can loom over a relationship like rain clouds waiting to burst over a beautiful spring day. Anyone who has been involved in more than one relationship realizes that disappointments are inevitable. We wish it weren’t so, that instead our beloved understands us implicitly, loves us without attachments or expectations, attends to our spoken and unspoken needs without fail, avails herself without hesitation and appreciates us for all we are and all we bring to the relationship. This magical thinking sets even the strongest relationships up for disappointment. Trying to avoid disappointments or eliminate their cause, which is admittedly futile at best, is not the goal. How the relationship weathers disappointments and the couple’s ability to hold themselves and the relationship in the midst of disappointment is where true intimacy resides.
For most of my formative years and in most of my adult relationships, I’ve focused on a single goal: don’t disappoint. Never mind that I was often, and in some relationships consistently, disappointed. I was compelled to act in ways that would (hopefully) ensure my girlfriend was not disappointed by my actions or words. Clearly this propensity came from my growing up family, where the happier my parents were with my younger brother and me, the calmer the house was and the more chance I might have of (hopefully) receiving their attention. Not an uncommon growing-up experience I’m sure. Acquiescing, appeasing and subjugating my desires, needs and feelings were skills I honed over years and years, until I finally realized that in the process of privileging the other in an effort to keep peace and (hopefully) maintain the relationship, I was disappointing the most important person: myself.
Gestalt psychology espouses many qualities that define an emotionally mature relationship, two of which are the ability to disappoint and the ability to be disappointed. Disappointment doesn’t have to mean the end of a relationship, nor does its presence have to dissolve into anger, resentment or passive/aggressive behaviors. I’ve discovered the deep strength of my Self when I hold the balance point between expressing disappointment and holding myself with relative calm when disappointed. Rather than seeing disappointment as a negative, I’m choosing to embrace it as an opening to be even more vulnerable, even more revealing, and an invitation to step into the fire of deep intimacy and be awakened in the process. It is not always easy, and I’m not always successful, and there are times I simply choose base reactions over a more loving response in the face of disappointment. I am keeping the higher goal in mind, and I know Kelli is, too.
Managing and accepting disappointments in myself, and in others, has not come easily for me. I learned early on the importance of doing well and pleasing others…a family trait with both benefits and costs. I also learned to attract others who mirrored my belief system back to me. Attempting to be the perfect partner or expecting to have the perfect partner creates a no-win situation in intimate relationships, however it’s one that’s not uncommon for couples.
In previous intimate relationships, I learned a lot about how to and how not to negotiate differences and disappointments. I also learned that sometimes the differences were simply too great. Initial sparks of attraction did not always, or often, lead to a deeper connection on multiple levels. What I didn’t know when I was younger was that dating was the means to get to know someone. I didn’t have to “marry” everyone I dated, and we didn’t need to be perfect for each other. Dating for the sake of dating, enjoying the other person in the process, and learning about what I wanted and didn’t want in relationship was okay and actually healthy. The traditional view of hurrying up and locking down that perfect partner, hopefully right out of college, marrying them, having and raising perfect children, and living happily ever after permeated my beliefs. In the real world of choice, that traditional view was the perfect lie. It’s amazing how many still live and die by it. And believe me, my heart was broken enough times to make me feel like I was dying at times. One of the reasons people experience disappointments is they get hooked up in this traditional model, instead of getting to know themselves and potential partners through the experience of dating. The truth is that I had to figure out how to live and love myself, and my potential partner, in the midst of relationship challenges. I had to be on both sides of disappointment.
Dorothy & Kelli speak
We celebrated our anniversary recently, which conveniently occurred over a weekend. Feeling confident that we’d spontaneously decide how to celebrate, I, Dorothy, didn’t begin considering or planning our celebration in advance. As the weekend approached, Kelli, who prefers to make plans farther in advance than I typically do, told me she was disappointed that I didn’t appear to have more interest in planning a meaningful celebration. After assuring her my approach was not indicative of low desire, we moved into our weekend, beginning with Saturday morning brunch and writing, followed by wine tasting and a happy hour at a sushi restaurant we’d been looking forward to trying. We were having a wonderful time until we began a conversation about my kids over a lovely, fresh sushi platter. When are we going to learn to not talk about the kids on date nights? One comment led to another and we ended our evening tentative with each other instead of romantic or passionate. We awoke disappointed.
I, Kelli, awoke Sunday morning feeling restless and confused. How could an otherwise connected experience turn so quickly into disappointment? Part of me wanted to creep out of bed and take myself out for coffee and pastries alone and cancel our morning plans. Instead, I lay in bed quietly present with Dorothy until I had a higher thought. A hot shower provided the perfect environment for those higher thoughts to emerge. What came to me was the dichotomy of disappointments. I knew that many times in our relationship disappointments dissipated easily without further discussion. However, sometimes the disappointments lingered, unresolved, threatening to creep in at inopportune moments. The higher the expectations then the greater the disappointment when those expectations were not met. Last night was one of those times. I’d placed a lot of meaning on planning and celebrating our anniversary, and we’d already bumped up against our different planning styles so the ground was already a little shaky. Throw in conversations about rebelling teenagers and…boom, the earth starts to rumble.
The reminder for me was that it’s not always perfect, even on the day it should be. It was another experience of navigating desires, expectations, meaning…oh, and of course, life circumstances sneaking up on us during our anniversary. How dare life, and others, interfere on OUR day!
We both chose to let the intensity of our emotions settle that morning before engaging in a conversation about disappointment, however we also chose not to let the emotions linger too long threatening to ruin the day and set a pattern in motion. We’d made a commitment to listen to a friend speak at a New Thought Church on Sunday morning and we wanted to keep our commitment to her. We started our resolving conversation in the car and finished it in the parking lot of the church…how appropriate!
Our relationship speaks
Kelli and Dorothy could have spent Sunday in quiet, mutual, self-righteous resentment. The temptation of habit to do so was strong. Knowing the pitfall resentment is, and having keen, individual desires to avoid that trap, they walked onto the limb of vulnerability and had a conversation that began: “I am disappointed and I know you are, too.” Their ability to acknowledge what was, to affirm the same experience for the other person, to listen to each other’s perspective, and to clearly speak their own thoughts allowed them to not only go one step deeper, it enabled them to do so with a fair degree of tenderness and humility. They were more focused on doing what the relationship needed than in being right. They were willing to tell their own truth at the risk of disappointing, knowing (or in some moments merely believing) that a conscious, committed, connected, loving relationship requires nothing less.
Kelli Williamson holds a Master of Arts degree in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from The School of Leadership and Education at the University of San Diego. Kelli has extensive experience working with couples, children and families. She has worked in private practice and held leadership positions in non-profit organizations directing counseling services, supervising staff and interns, and providing training in child and family therapy. In addition, she consults with non-profit agencies providing organizational development and leadership training.
Dorothy Emerson graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in Economics. She is a Senior Product Manager in the banking industry and has served on the board of directors for non-profit agencies serving women and children. Dorothy has expertise in building relationships by facilitating communication and collaboration while navigating complex systems. Dorothy is also the mother of two teenagers and she offers clarity and focus on listening to and following one’s heart as a parent.
Dorothy and Kelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.