Disappointment: A Holy Invitation

Months before my husband and I went away for our tenth anniversary, I began to fantasize about the celebratory getaway. We would eat dinners by candlelight, give each other extravagant presents, walk along the beach reminiscing about our wonderfulness, and of course, make love each night. As Christopher has learned, I’m fluent in all five love languages and on important events, such as birthdays and anniversaries, I want to experience as many as possible. When the weekend finally arrived, I was nearly giddy as we drove away.

That lasted about four hours. I was so eager to receive his imagined amazing gift that not long after we settled into the bed and breakfast I suggested we exchange presents. He slid his hand into his bag and pulled out—wait for it—a card and a pen and sat down to write. On the day of our anniversary. I watched him and thought, “Ten years wasn’t enough time to prepare for this date?” My giddiness morphed into anxiety.

He wasn’t unprepared: He had written a poem for me. As he began to read it, my emotions immediately tangled around themselves like a ball of discarded fishing line. My inner dialogue went something along the lines of, “A poem? I wasn’t expecting a poem. I wanted something tangible. How could he not know that? After ten years, he still doesn’t understand me.” I tried to rally, but failed. He countered with justifiable anger. Instead of joyfully kicking off our second decade, this weekend began a painful and disconcerting year. (Just for the record, I’ve repented for my selfish ingratitude.)

Though we were not conflict rookies, the intensity and stickiness of our anger unnerved both of us. It was as if this single event somehow exposed every deficit in our marriage. After months of palpable tension, we turned to wise friends who helped us understand how we had been avoiding and/or minimizing our disappointments. As a result, we never learned what they were trying to teach us and endlessly looped around the same half dozen fights. Sound familiar?

In the context of marriage, if we find ourselves habitually disappointed, we have four options: to divest and/or quit, to pretend that everything is fine (which is dishonest), to try and change our spouse (which never works), or, to ask God to use the disappointment to transform us so that we can love our spouse independent of their behavior. If we want our marriage to thrive, we really only have one choice.

That choice is not easy to make. Disappointment, as author Mike Mason points out, often causes us “to pull back from the full intensity of the relationship, to get along on only the basic requirements.” In order to give more of ourself—rather than pull back—we need to reframe disappointment as a holy invitation. By pressing into this disquieting feeling, we can discern what drives it and hopefully open ourselves up to the possibility of deep and lasting change.

Disappointment can be nebulous. It sometimes attaches to other more identifiable emotions such as sadness, irritability, fear, or despair, making it difficult to identify. Marital disappointment often surfaces in connection to what our spouse has or hasn’t done. We feel disappointed because he stopped exercising and gained weight. Disappointed that she cannot break free from depression. Disappointed that he does not want to pray regularly. Though we can experience disappointment in our own failures and limitations, it’s much easier to fixate on our spouse’s.

According to psychology professor Jeffrey Bjorck, at core, “disappointment is an initial response to learning that our expectations will not be met.” Once we realize the connection between disappointment and expectations, if we continue to experience disappointment, it indicates a resistance to accept and grieve the loss of those expectations. If we repeatedly resist, we get stuck.

Apparently, I have resisted accepting my losses because disappointment has been a faithful companion for most of my life. It has consistently robbed me of joy, perhaps specifically in my marriage. That anniversary fight? Because I came into the weekend with rigid expectations (I wanted flowers, a thoughtful card, sex, and a tangible gift), I was unable to appreciate my husband’s unique offering. Ironically, the traditional tenth anniversary present is tin or aluminum—symbolizing the flexibility that marriage requires of us.

The Role of Disappointment in Ferreting Out Unhelpful Expectations

Christopher and I have had our share of sticky disappointments; that’s part of what our year-ten crisis was all about. When I married him, naive optimism over-shadowed the reality that he does not like public displays of affection, his mercurial, and has time deficiency disorder. (Don’t bother looking this up; I diagnosed him.) That same optimism obscured the reality that I struggle to need him, am too quick to judge, and prefer reading to talking at the end of the day.

We crashed into these relational speed bumps more times than I care to admit. In order to avoid further bruisings, we had to learn to stop avoiding these problematic feelings and start exploring what they meant. Not long after we made that decision, something shifted.

Rather than staying in a place of disappointment and blame, I started asking the Lord to help me repent of any unfair expectations, focus on Christopher’s strengths rather than his weaknesses, and finally, develop reality-based expectations. At least for the two of us, developing reality-based expectations continues to be one of the most difficult components of creating and maintaining a healthy marriage. Sometimes, it’s easier for us to cling to unrealistic expectations than it is to let them go and grieve. Clinging is a form of denial that masquerades as hope. We persist in clinging because it gives us something to hold onto and allows us to side-step the hard work of grieving.

I may be slow but I have learned to mourn and let go of most of my unrealistic expectations. As I’ve made this choice, I gradually began to understand that it was my expectations—not any actual deficits—that kept my disappointment on life-support. (To clarify, it’s not wrong to express our hopes or desires to our spouse or even to ask them to develop in a previously undeveloped area. When it becomes clear that they will not or cannot meet our expectations, we have to adjust those expectations.)

For the last fifteen years, God has been helping Christopher and me move beyond the constriction of disappointment. This has allowed us to appreciate each other more fully and to give ourselves more freely—without fear of being rejected. As evidence, for my fiftieth birthday, he organized a magnificent party complete with fresh flowers, a hilarious game of Dorothy based Jeopardy, and best of all—a gluten-free/dairy-free potluck. It was a marvelous evening made all the more sweet because he not only initiated the celebration but clearly intended to romance me. I’m happy to say, he succeeded!

This article was adapted from Making Marriage Beautiful (2017) published by David C Cook. Used with permission.

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Dorothy Greco

Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful. She writes about the intersection faith and contemporary culture, relationships, parenting, leadership, and race for many publications including Christianity Today, Relevant, Biola University, and many more. You can find more of Dorothy’s writing on her site or by following her on Facebook or Twitter.

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