I'm Disappointed, but I'm Okay

If love is the lesson, disappointment is the teacher.

Posted May 28, 2010

There are two very hard things to do in life. But if you can't do them, you're not likely to have a successful intimate relationship.

The first difficult but necessary task is holding onto self-value when you don't like your partner's behavior. The second hardest thing to do, which you don't have a chance of accomplishing if you can't do the first, is holding onto value for your partner when you don't like his/her behavior. We must be able to experience disappointment without feeling devalued and without devaluing people we love.

Self-value in Conflict with Loved Ones
Once we form emotional bonds, our lovers become reflections of how lovable and loving we are. (A previous post described how love serves as the most compelling and vivid mirror of the inner self.) At first the mirror of love reflects the idealized self but soon fills in the gaps of this partial reflection with all our negative qualities. Eventually, we have a more realistic but far less comfortable reflection of ourselves as lovable and loving.

If we cannot take the painfully complete reflection in the mirror of love, we cannot feel authentic enough to sustain the interest, trust, intimacy, and commitment required of love relationships. Sadly, many couples blame their displeasure with love's reflected image of self on the mirror.

"She used to show me how wonderful I am, and now she shows me how wonder-less is my routine plodding through life."

Blame makes them withdraw the compassion that would keep them sensitive to the emotional worlds of one another. Whenever we fail at compassion, we can scarcely see loved ones apart from our negative beliefs and feelings about them. The mirror of love then becomes sinister. It invariably causes petty resentments that sometimes degenerate into betrayal, emotional torture, or physical harm. Everything bad about love results from at least one party trying to control the reflection by manipulating the mirror. It feels to them like, "I can't be the real me unless I change you."

The deterioration of many relationships has little to do with temperamental clashes or incompatibilities or poor communication. The road to oblivion begins with the inability to distinguish disappointment in the partner's behavior from being devalued by it. Sadly, this is often just a matter of emotion regulation skill.

Emotion regulation can be described in several ways. My favorite is: "Cheering yourself up when you're down and calming yourself down when you feel upset." Behaviorally, this means acting in ways that have a reasonable chance of improving bad matters or at least not making them worse.

We start developing emotion regulation skill at about 6 months. Despite some dramatic flare-ups during toddlerhood, children have it pretty much mastered by pre-adolescence. In most areas of life, adults are able to absorb and learn from disappointments with relatively brief declines in self-value. The notable exception to this rule is love relationships.

We can all react like toddlers to our partners, fully indulging the toddler defenses of blame, denial, and avoidance. That's because reflections from the mirror of love reach a depth of vulnerability that typically hasn't been touched since the most disorganized moments of toddlerhood, when struggles for autonomy seemed to pose the greatest threat to love relationships. Marital arguments can sound remarkably like toddlers saying, "No! (don't tell me what to do)" and, "Mine (my way)!"

The next post will show a way to regulate disappointment and keep it from turning us into something a bit more mean-spirited and a lot less cute than a toddler.