By: Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.
You have high expectations for yourself and expectations that are as high, or higher, for your partner. In a close relationship, it’s natural to feel that you can count on your partner to be reliable, consistent, and responsive. You may also feel that your partner should agree with you, if not all, at least for some of the time. Whether it’s in your overall world view or in decisions about money, the children, or how to spend your time, you’ve come to believe that your partner will support you on most occasions.
It’s possible that you’ve also come to expect that your partner will see eye-to-eye with you regarding various social issues. Your partner may tend to be a little to the left or a little to the right of you, but there has always been a general acceptance of each other’s positions. Should you learn that your partner is taking the polar opposite side of your own position in the wake of the tumultuous first few weeks of 2021, you could feel so dismayed that you wonder if you will ever again be able to come to any kind of mutual understanding and respect.
In general, that sense of disappointment in your partner can come from any source, not just current events. You could feel that your partner betrays you by not following the previously-agreed upon household chores. Maybe your partner refuses to wear a facemask, spends too much on online shopping, no longer pays attention to healthy habits of eating or working out, or does nothing but play videogames, all behaviors you interpret as representing a rejection of your own values and priorities.
According to Ariel University’s Eliane Sommerfeld, writing in a 2019 article, “disappointment is one of the most frequent and intense emotions people experience in close relationships” (p. 1476). Yet, as common as it is to feel disappointed with a relationship partner, there’s surprisingly little research on the topic. Across a set of four studies, the Israeli researcher dug into the concept of close relationship disappointment, culminating in a six-factor questionnaire that she then used to describe the personalities of the frequently let-down.
As Sommerfeld noted, there are two types of disappointments in close relationships. When you’re disappointed with an outcome, your reaction reflects your feeling that your expectation wasn’t met. For example, you might believe your sports team should have easily won a game for which they were heavily favored. When you’re disappointed in a relationship, your feeling of being let down falls into the category of what Sommerfeld calls “person-related disappointment.”
There are a host of unpleasant emotional reactions following person-related disappointment that doesn’t occur when it’s an outcome that fails to meet your expectations. When your partner lets you down, you open yourself up to feeling abandoned while also feeling that your partner is morally wrong. You’re also likely to feel disillusioned because it’s clear now that your partner isn’t living up to the standards you felt you both shared. In the process, you might also try to distance yourself from your partner.
Although your feelings of being disappointed could have an objective basis (i.e. your partner really does violate your shared moral code) Sommerfeld notes that it’s also possible for you to be the kind of person who generally sees disappointment in many of your relationships. People high on the personality trait of neuroticism, according to this viewpoint, generally experience a range of negative emotions. Adding to this trait, the quality of insecure attachment can also come into play. You might be particularly sensitive to feelings of abandonment, and so are likely to define your partner’s deviation from your point of view to constitute a form of rejection of you as a person, not of your viewpoint.
Prior to developing the six-factor disappointment measure, Sommerfeld first asked samples of undergraduate participants to describe events in which they were disappointed in their partner. This gave her a set of potential scenarios to use in the second study, in which she asked participants to respond based on the way they would feel if these events occurred to them. These responses allowed her to develop a set of items that she then subjected to statistical analysis. Finally, using the six scales, the Israeli researcher compared scores on the disappointment scales to measures of personality based on the Five-Factor Model of neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, consciousness, and extraversion.
Turning now to the six-factor scale, see how you would reply to these sample items regarding a recent disappointment with your own partner:
Overwhelming emotional distress: “I felt my world had collapsed.”
Distrust, hatred, and disgust toward the other: “I suddenly felt I didn’t care for that person.”
Astonishment with the other’s behavior: “I really could not understand how he/she could do that.”
Efforts toward forgiveness and reparation: “I tried to figure out how we could have good relations despite what happened.”
Concealment of emotions: “I tried not to show my feelings to others.”
Effort to generate positive thoughts and to overcome: “I tried to console myself and to accept what happened.“
The two “positive” factors, involving efforts to forgive and look on the bright side, stand out from the other four that reflect what you might regard as straight-up disappointment. The reason these positive factors were included was that, according to Sommerfeld, there can indeed be a push-pull aspect to disappointment when the other person involved is one to whom you’re generally positively attached. Of all the scales, astonishment received the highest average score, but respondents also scored relatively high on that last scale of trying to derive something positive from the experience.
With this general background in mind, you can now perhaps understand how personality might factor into the overall pattern of disappointment scores. People high on neuroticism, the tendency to experience negative emotions, were most likely to agree with the distress factor and least likely to be able to take something positive away from the experience. Those high in attachment anxiety and avoidance, additionally, were most likely to agree with items on the distress and distrust scales. Participants high in avoidance, furthermore, were most likely to try to conceal their emotions.
With those seemingly contradictory facets of disappointment as outrage and forgiveness, Sommerfeld notes that they may accurately reflect the very essence of disappointment with someone to whom you are close. As she states, “Undoubtedly, disappointment has the potential to be very emotionally confusing and challenging” (p. 1487). Yet, the fact that personality and attachment play into this response suggests that it’s not just one specific event that can trigger this internal confusion. You may, by virtue of your personality and typical feelings of relationship security, be particularly primed to be let down by your partner. At that point, you might ask whether it is indeed your partner letting you down, or whether this event has triggered your own anxieties and insecurities.
That disappointment-stimulating event, then, may have as much to do with your own representation of your relationship in your mind as with your partner’s actual behavior. To ease the process of overcoming the pain and moving on, the Israeli author suggests that you recognize that disappointments are inevitable. Furthermore, you might also remind yourself that disappointment can indeed be a two-way street and it’s possible that you disappoint your partner more than you might care to admit.
To sum up, experiences within a close relationship can become ones that leave you feeling frustrated, annoyed, and abandoned. Learning to view disappointment as part of the cost of closeness can help you become a more understanding, if not forgiving, partner.