We have a priest friend who says that no couple should get engaged without first disappointing each other, and then choosing each other anyway. Thankfully, this advice has helped frame my experience of disappointment in J. and I’s relationship (it’s a lot harder to frame than the joyful, fun parts!). Rather than seeing disappointment as a sign that Our Relationship Must Be Doomed, like I had in previous couplings or friendships, I noticed with J. that we could simply voice our disappointments with each other and move forward, together, in acceptance. I’ve certainly disappointed J. more times and in more serious ways than I am proud of, and J. has also disappointed me from time to time.
Well, now seems to be one of those times where we’re disappointing each other. Let me set the stage: J. has been super busy with school stuff (as there are only 3 weeks to go until classes finish for the semester), and I’ve often felt less than generous about carrying the burden of household duties. More than that, I’m facing some career decisions that I’d like to talk over with him; he’s facing some thoughts about finances, family visits, and graduation that he’d like to talk over with me, and neither of us have felt very available to each other lately. I’m disappointed when J. appears to prioritize deadlines over me, and he’s disappointed when I’d rather unwind with TV instead of checking-in. I’m also disappointed in myself, by how needy I’ve felt lately (Did I seriously just ask for “more attention”? Am I five years old?), how quickly I can get resentful, or by how easily I forget empathy over how much J. especially is balancing right now. And I think he’s pretty disappointed in himself, too; it can’t feel good let your wife down. Each of us has gone to bed on occasion feeling pretty lonely, despite the physical presence of the other.
I think our culture teaches us that marriage is supposed to be the antidote to loneliness, emptiness, and disappointment. Get Married and You’ll Never Be Lonely Again! But theologian Richard Gaillardetz says in his book, A Daring Promise, that a real understanding of covenantal marriage not only includes, but emphasizes, the significance of the limits of the relationship. In this way, marriage is pretty countercultural; turns out, what we signed up for is a hard road. Gaillardetz says it best here:
Although a spouse brings significant personal gifts to a marriage, those gifts are finite and, in time, each spouse becomes aware, often painfully aware, of what the other partner does not and cannot give. For every time that one’s spouse is graciously present and attentive in a time of need, there is a time of real or emotional absence…When spouses freely accept the limits of the marital relationship, when they choose love even out of the emptiness, they enter into the pascal rhythm.
In my reflections of this current experience of disappointment, I realize that if I am coming from a centered and aware place – not a reactive place – feeling disappointed in J. (or myself) really doesn’t shake my core. I am learning that disappointment is inevitable because no one is perfect (even me??!), disappointment can serve as a signpost to help each other out in areas that are challenging, and being vulnerable with each other in our disappointment can lead to fruitfulness. I am learning that facing disappointment is both central to our relationship, and also one way I can practice authenticity, unconditionality, forgiveness, and affirmation of J.’s belovedness (and J. for me).
With the balm of a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee, J. and I made ourselves available to each other and talked over some of our disappointments. Our stressors right now remain unchanged, but I feel freer – both available to J. and heard from J. in a new way, and thankful that the acceptance of our disappointments led to greater connectedness.