Disappointment Avoidance Ruins Relationships
When therapists, relationship coaches, and sex educators talk about the things that get in the way of creating positive connection and intimacy, we often include things like shame, anger, resentment, and unspoken expectations. But there’s one more that doesn’t get as much attention, even though it has a huge impact on our relationships: disappointment avoidance.
Here’s a truth about relationships that we all have to face. Disappointment is going to happen. There are going to be times when you don’t get what you want, and there will be times when your partner(s) don’t get what they want. That’s just part of life. But here’s where it gets a bit trickier. You won’t always get what you want from your partner, and they won’t always get what they want from you.
Trying to avoid disappointment leads to all sorts of difficult situations. For example, if I can’t tolerate your disappointment, I’ll be a lot less likely to set a boundary with you. How can I tell you “no” if I’m worried about your reaction or if I feel guilty about it? How can I tell you what I want or need if I expect that you’ll have problems with that? Disappointment avoidance is one of the reasons that people withhold information, minimize their emotions, and allow their boundaries to become invisible.
Of course, we sometimes have good reason to try to minimize the other person’s reaction. Some people get angry, or threatening, or violent. Some people get passive-aggressive or manipulative. Some people use shame or guilt trips to try to get you to change your mind. Some people go into a shame spiral, which can be uncomfortable to be around. And if your past experience taught you that you need to avoid your partner’s disappointment in order to keep yourself emotionally or physically safe, it can be hard to shift that.
But it’s also important to be aware that much of the time, those patterns are rooted in the past, rather than your current relationship. Many of my clients are surprised when they discover that their partners can handle disappointment far more gracefully than expected.
It also helps when you learn how to talk about these things without blaming each other. There’s a subtle but important difference between “you made me feel this way” and “I feel this way because of something you did.” The first one puts all of the responsibility for your feelings on the other person, which means you’ve given up all of your power. The second one holds the other person accountable while you maintain responsibility for your emotions. That’s a much more empowered response.
That empowerment makes it much, much easier to tolerate disappointment. The difference between “you disappointed me when you backed out of the project” and “I feel disappointment because you backed out of the project” gives both people the room to let the emotion be present without getting defensive about it. That creates far more opportunities to move forward in whatever way they choose.
When you develop the capacity to allow for disappointment without blaming, shaming, or withdrawing, you lay the foundation for honest, openhearted, authentic communication. To do that, you need to be able to acknowledge that disappointment is present without trying to fix it or make it go away. You need to be able to feel it yourself, and allow for the other person to feel it. That’s not easy- it’s an uncomfortable sensation and it makes sense that we often want to fix it as soon as we can. But just like our other difficult emotions, the best way to “fix it” is to let it have its voice and to listen to it.
Having someone see you in your disappointment can be scary. It can feel really vulnerable, especially if you have fears that they will use it against you. Seeing someone else in their disappointment can trigger all sorts of feelings, including the urge to rescue them from it or to fix it. It takes a lot of practice to be able to sit with the emotions. While it takes some effort to learn how to handle both sides of the disappointment dynamic, it’s worth it because the payoff is the ability to be fully present in your relationships, to be honest with yourself and your partner(s), and to navigate boundaries with ease and grace.
A good place to start is to simply notice the ways in which you try to avoid disappointment, whether your own or someone else’s. Give it some attention and look for your patterns. Are there situations it usually happens in? Does it come up more around certain people? What are the messages you hear your disappointment telling you? What are the stories it holds? Once you have a handle on that, it becomes easier to create new patterns.
You can also explore what the somatic sensation of disappointment is for you. Where do you feel it in your body? Does it have a texture? A shape? A temperature? A color? When you know how your body responds to the feeling, it becomes easier to notice when the emotion is happening. That gives you more room to respond to it, in the same way that noticing the red light up ahead gives you more room to hit the brakes. When my clients are working through this, we put a lot of time into exploring the physical and somatic sensations of their emotions before we start unpacking the stories and meanings behind them. That works a lot better than rushing ahead to the words. (Calming breathwork also helps a lot.)
Learning to tolerate, manage, and honor your disappointment doesn’t sound like a super sexy thing. But I can promise you that it has the potential to make all of your relationships, whether sexual/romantic or not, much easier. It creates the space to be authentic and vulnerable with each other, which is what allows for connection, intimacy, and passion. Plus, it gives you far more opportunities to get what you really want. And that is where the fun is.