People in committed relationships emotionally respond to each other mostly by habit.
In fact, adult emotional responses of any kind are to a large extent habituated associations formed by repetition over time. Because the human brain does as much as possible on automatic pilot to conserve the scarce resource of conscious attention, specific emotions readily become associated not only with specific events and memories but also with other emotions.
For example, the childhood experience of many adults included the following: When something happened to disappoint them, the next thing that happened made them afraid or ashamed. (We inadvertently forge this association by punishing children for mistakes.) If this emotional sequence was repeated often enough, they are prone to experience some modulated form of fear or shame whenever they feel disappointed.
Although any emotion can form habituated associations with other emotions, the most common in love relationships is the association of disappointment with fear or shame. It's a natural connection. Intimate relationships are unique in their tendency to expose the depths of personal vulnerability. Wherever you find vulnerability, you'll find fear or shame.
Some people associate disappointment with fear of harm or deprivation, though the more common linkage is with fear of isolation, i.e., disappointment threatens to make them feel unlovable: "No one will understand me," or, "No one will care."
Just as frequently in love relationships, disappointment is associated with the shame of inadequacy, a sense of failure, particularly as a protector, lover, or provider.
The vulnerability inherent in the experience of fear and shame invokes defenses, which for most people, is some form of anger. If the anger persists over time, it settles into a chronic but lower intensity resentment. Thus disappointment over anything runs a higher risk of stimulating resentment or anger in love relationships than in interactions with strangers. And that is why, as the old song goes, "We always hurt the ones we love."
To stop hurting the ones we love, we must be able to keep disappointment from stimulating fear and shame, which, in turn, will prevent problem resentment and anger from starving relationships of the compassion that would rejuvenate them.
It's worth noting that insight about how emotional associations may have formed originally does nothing to change them once they're habituated. Change of a habituated sequence of neural firing requires an alteration of the sequence to become habituated. In other words, just understanding how a habit may have been formed won't change it. Forming a new habit will. Forming new habits of emotional response requires the practice of emotion regulation.
Practice Disappointment Regulation
1. Recall a time when you felt disappointed, without feeling devalued (e.g., your stocks went down, your team lost, your favorite politician didn't get nominated, you missed a flight due to traffic, or you made an error on your tax return).
2. Notice that the feeling of disappointment, though quite unpleasant, is temporary and not at all like deeper and more profound feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness of love.
3. Think of your strengths and resilience, your competence and caring.
4. Do one of the following:
- Improve — do something that will make either the situation, your experience of it, or the meaning you give to it a little better.
- Appreciate something about the world around you.
- Connect to someone you love, to something spiritual, to a community, or to strangers on the street. (It doesn't have to be an interaction or any overt behavior; connection is a mental state.)
- Protect someone you love from distress.
5. Feel, "I'm disappointed, but I'm okay."
Practice Disappointment Regulation With Loved Ones
When it comes to disappointment with loved ones, practicing the skill is quite a bit harder — but a hell of a lot more important.
Do the exercise above, recalling (in #1) disappointment about your partner, e.g., his/her "messiness" or distractions. Append the following to the exercise:
6. Practice binocular vision — try to see the interaction or problem through your partner's eyes at the same time you see it through your own.
7. See yourself through your partner's eyes.
8. Honoring your partner's perspective, ask for the change you want.
9. Feel: "I'm disappointed by the problem, but I love you."
As long as the love is more important than the disappointment, you can work out just about any problem between you. It is only when disappointment seems more important than love that relationship problems become toxic.
Practice of emotion regulation can help break the cycle of doom. That's when disappointment makes you feel devalued and makes you want to devalue your partner in return, which, of course, causes retaliation, in one form or another, from your partner. Only when this cycle is broken, can love be free to grow and flourish.
(A special note for abusive relationships, wherein your partner purposely hurts you to get what he/she wants: If your partner is unwilling to heal his/her hurt through the experience of compassion for you, the abuse will almost certainly worsen. The most compassionate thing for both of you is to mercifully end the relationship.)