The Gift of Disappointment

All marriages face disappointment. It doesn’t matter how well matched or how mature we are. We shouldn’t feel worried about occasional bouts of disappointment. We should feel concerned if we get stuck there.

When we experience disappointment and it’s neither spouse’s fault (such as a loss of employment due to corporate downsizing or infertility), we generally grieve, accept the loss, and move on. The disappointments that are connected to our unrealistic expectations for each other tend to be stickier.

My husband and I have had our share of sticky disappointments. When I married him, naive optimism overshadowed the reality that he is mercurial, does not like public displays of affection, and hates flying. That same optimism obscured the reality that I struggle to need him, am too quick to judge, and have a limited capacity to listen.

If we fail to recognize that we carry expectations—let alone that they might be unrealistic—we often end up blaming each other when we feel disappointed. That blame can easily transition to anger and resentment if we fail to process it. Processing means that we explore where the expectations came from and whether or not they are feasible and/or godly. Most expectations are morally neutral. But, they can become unfair or unhelpful if we cling to them and fail to take our spouse’s familial, cultural, and individual histories into account.

If we fail to recognize that we carry expectations—let alone that they might be unrealistic—we often end up blaming each other when we feel disappointed.
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For example, if a wife experienced sexual abuse and her husband enters marriage expecting amazing, frequent sex from the first night of the honeymoon, those expectations are unrealistic based on his wife’s history. When my husband and I got married, we clashed over a far less consequential matter: vacations. He went on one vacation during his entire childhood. My family traveled every year. When we got married, I expected that the two of us would explore the world together. Instead, we fought about where to go, how much to spend, and if w really had to get on an airplane. Neither of us saw that speed bump. After we scraped our undercarriage more times than I care to admit, it began to dawn on us that perhaps we needed to find a more productive, less destructive path through our miss-matched expectations.

Rather than blaming each other, we started confessing our failures (impatience, judgment, moralizing, etc.) and talking at length about our expectations for each other.

Additionally, I began asking the Lord to help me do three things: let go of any unfair expectations, appreciate his strengths, and develop reality-based expectations. Of these three objectives, developing reality-based expectations has been the most difficult. It’s far easier to cling to our expectations than it is to let them go and hold onto God. As I write in Making Marriage Beautiful, “Clinging is a form of denial that masquerades as hope.” We persist in clinging because it allows us to sidestep the hard work of changing what we actually have control over ourselves.

My prayers are finally paying off. I’m learning to let go of my unrealistic expectations by choosing an internal posture of holy resignation. Practically speaking, holy resignation means accepting and loving your spouse without demanding that he or she change, resisting the vortex of despair and blame, and standing in faith that God will complete a good work in the marriage—regardless of current circumstances.

Choosing to learn from our disappointments has significantly reduced our marital conflicts. After twenty-seven years, we rarely struggle with disappointment, in part because our expectations are (mostly) rooted in reality. Now that I’m not so focused on what my husband doesn’t do, I’m able to notice all that he does well. This makes for a much happier husband and a much more enjoyable marriage.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash


Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing about faith, encouraging others as they pursue Jesus, making photographs of beautiful things, and trying to love her family well. You can find more of her Words & Images on her website, or by following her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Dorothy's first book Making Marriage Beautiful is now available.

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