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February 10, 2016

This Valentine’s Day, Give the Gift of Disappointment.

rose girl flower sad alone

As Sex and Intimacy Therapists, we have a rather fraught relationship with Valentine’s Day. We are all too familiar with the way it can test relationships.

As women who experience the ebb and flow of our own romantic journeys, we are equally ambivalent.

Granted, there is that rare couple whose desires and expectations align perfectly on this day, embracing the idea that chocolates, roses, teddy bears and heart-shaped-everything can act as reminders of their compatibility.

And then there is everyone else.

For the majority of people—single, coupled (tripled, et cetera) or undefined—Valentine’s Day offers a minefield for potential disappointment. But, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

Single people who are looking for a relationship may experience “V-Day” as a painful reminder, and those who are equivocal about their relationship status or even happily single may suddenly experience feelings of self-judgement for not living up to cultural expectations. Relationships that are in less defined forms may crumble under the pressure of what Valentine’s Day signifies, since spending it together or apart may have certain implications that raise the stakes. External expectations may increase the pressure regardless of internal desires.

The pressure can highlight early power imbalances and communication difficulties that could otherwise surface later once a stronger foundation was laid. Furthermore, Valentine’s day isn’t all bubble baths, chocolate dipped strawberries and epic orgasms for folks in committed relations.

In reality, Valentine’s Day generally includes a good amount of disappointment, for everyone involved. It is just one reminder that disappointment is inevitable in all relationships.

It is not whether or not there will be disappointment (hint: there will), it is what we do with it is that impacts the longevity of a relationship.

Long-term relationships provide us with an opportunity to grow, because they cause us to face our deepest longings and fears. As we allow ourselves to connect with another human being whose needs, feelings and desires differ from ours, we take a crucial step toward each other and a necessary risk.

Similarities between partners and attunement to differing needs help couples relax into a sense of safety and stability. This relaxation creates a foundation for growth. At the same time, the challenging differences between people provide the growth-promoting tension in any relationship. In the face of these differences, we have found, some amount of disappointment is not only inevitable, but also offers an important path to growth and a deeper connection.

Disappointment is hard on both sides, which is why it can cause far more friction in a relationship than the disappointing act itself. So while the common Valentine’s Day offenses (not getting a gift, getting the wrong gift, not receiving a gift with expected enthusiasm) may seem inconsequential, any disappointment has the potential to spiral into guilt, defensiveness, resentment, hopelessness or even rage.

Some of us have a high tolerance for being disappointed, but an extremely low tolerance for having disappointed another. While this may sound like a noble or easygoing stance, it can lead us to operate under the belief that we are such skilled “pleasers” that we will never disappoint someone. When we do, inevitably, disappoint our partner, we may have a very difficult time bouncing back, apologizing or empathizing. The impossible has occurred, so we look for something, or someone, else to blame.

At the other end of the spectrum, some of us become numb to disappointing our partners; if we feel so scrutinized that disappointing them is unavoidable, we may stop paying attention to their wants and needs.

The common denominator in all of this is that disappointment often ends up shutting down communication instead of opening it up.

For a relationship to thrive, both partners must be able to experience both being disappointed and disappointing as opportunities for communicating our differences that can teach us more about ourselves and each other.

After all, almost every relationship problem derives from the inherent differences between any two people and the misunderstandings and disappointments that come from those differences. These may be differences that seem trivial, such as disagreement about how clean the house should be, or differences that most people would see as highly challenging, such as disagreement about practicing non-monogamy versus monogamy.

We believe that learning how to navigate these differences and the disappointments that come from them is an essential part of relationship success. If we run from our own desires in order to avoid disappointing our partner, we are not actually moving toward a connection, but away from both ourselves and our partners.

While there are no conclusive studies measuring the fulfillment one gets from a lasting, loving relationship, we would estimate that an excellent relationship gives us about 70 percent of what we want. This means that we will experience approximately 30 percent disappointment.

While most of us don’t want to think about disappointment, we have found that couples who have an empowered approach to it have the most successful and resilient relationships. We do so much work with couples on dealing with disappointment in their relationships that we now consider it an essential opportunity—rather than an aberration.

In order for relationships to move from stagnation and isolation into connection and cohesion, disappointments must be faced again and again.

We are not saying we should intentionally drop the ball on V-Day in ways that can only mean self-sabotage.

Instead, this Valentine’s Day let’s all try to do our best to express our love and passion for our partners in an authentic way that means something to them. But, if someone misses the mark, let’s practice how to recover from it with communication, empathy and openness.

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Authors: Celeste Hirschman & Danielle Harel

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Takumi Yoshida/Flickr

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Celeste Hirschman & Danielle Harel