*This originally appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times"
I’m struggling with something affecting my marriage, but I’m not sure if it’s a “me” problem or an “us” problem. Basically, I’m feeling disappointed in my wife. It’s not that she is or does anything awful. On the contrary, (most of) the stuff that bothers me isn’t even objectively bad. And I pretty much knew it going in. I guess maybe I just didn’t realize how much it would bother me. We get along, and I do love her, I think, most of the time. I’ve spoken to her about it, and she, of course, feels very hurt by it, so I try not to bring it up too often. She’s a good mom, and she’s good to me, so I’m pretty sure I want to make this work and figure out a way to be less bothered by it. Is there anything I can do?
There are certain issues that feel markedly incongruous in terms of how often they come up in real life couples, and how relatively little they seem to be discussed in therapy literature and training. I deliberately edited out details of your marriage and areas of disappointment from your letter, partly for your privacy, but also because I wanted to address the broader issue of feeling spousal disappointment rather than the specific content you highlighted.
With certain issues, one distinction we make is primary vs secondary vs situational. Primary means it was always there, secondary is when it wasn’t always like this, and situational means it’s sometimes this way, depending on (you guessed it): the situation.
Secondary and situational disappointment are probably more relatable and common:
“I married this person, all excited about a, b, and c about him/her, but over time, s/he changed, or my feelings about that quality changed, and now or in certain circumstances, I feel less enamored or even annoyed by that trait or the way it plays out for me.”
Primary disappointment feels somewhat more cultural, and more difficult. In a romance- or attraction-based culture, you’re less likely to decide to marry someone you find disappointing. But in a culture where there is often external pressure or messaging to get married by a certain age, to a certain prototype, or based on certain criteria, often the disappointment is there right away, but glossed over or dismissed at first.
(This is a different dynamic from the unhappy surprises that sometimes emerge when important information about or aspects of the person were deliberately undisclosed until after the wedding.)
It’s also important that you distinguished between disappointment in problematic behavior vs, as you describe, unobjectionable variables. Disappointment in a spouse treating your or your kids poorly, not upholding agreed upon standards of responsibility, fidelity, or values, are more serious, relational priority, and should be addressed proactively.
Disappointment can also fall within certain gray areas in between the innocuous and the objectionable. For example: if you realize that you find your partner’s sense of humor to be corny or awkward, while some might find it funny, and others would agree with you.
Other common examples we hear about this phenomenon of subjective disappointment include:
“I wish my spouse were:
more popular/ socially savvy/ more understated/ less ‘out there,’
more ambitious/ didn’t work so much,
smarter or “differently” smart/ more playful or silly,
more religiously inclined/ less religiously adherent,
more eloquent/ more colloquial,
more confident/ more humble,
had a different tone of voice/ face/ body,
learning more/ learning less,
did more for the community/ spent less time doing things for others,
more spontaneous/ better about planning/ more responsible,
more communicative/ didn’t need to share so much all the time,
wanted more touch/ wanted less touch,
better looking/ less vain,
spent less/ more time at the gym,
more gentle/ more disciplinary as a parent,
more adventurous/ more content to just “be,”
more relaxed about spending money/ better about budgeting and saving,
enjoyed more of my interests/ gave me more space to pursue my own stuff,
more competent/ more willing to accept help,
cared less what other people think/ cared a little more about what other people think,
more/less like his/her family, more/less like my family,
more like a different person I dated, or crushed on, or know (or romanticize)
less sensitive/ more intuitive,
and a fan favorite: able to read my mind.”
It can be any or a combination of those wishes.
Sometimes it can be something heavier like:
“I wish s/he were just… someone else.”
Or: “I wish our marriage/ life were different.”
These are indeed very heavy feelings, and while we hear them often and in varying gradations in the privacy of therapy, I don’t know of any magic or one-size-fits-all solutions. I will try and make some suggestions about how to manage these feelings.
The first is the idea behind the famous Serenity Prayer: a request for “serenity to accept what we can’t change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That crucial balance between acceptance and taking action.
There are certain aspects of a partner that are either impossible or unfair to request to change. There are other requests that are reasonable to make regarding changes in behaviors, language, roles, or routines. It’s also possible to effect change by choosing to leave your marriage, if or when necessary. I don’t say this flippantly; this isn’t a decision to make lightly. But a person who has a realistic option to leave a marriage is also a person who can make a conscious, empowered decision to stay in one. (Whereas one who feels trapped or unable to leave might have a harder time owning the decision to stay, and then taking responsibility to work on it.)
Do you want to be in this marriage? Yes, it can be a scary question. But it’s helpful to know where you stand. If you’re definitively in, it will be easier to do the work. If you feel you might need to explore the option of leaving, well, then that should probably be examined as well. Once you’ve made a soul-searching analysis, if you’ve determined that you want in, there are techniques you can try to build more connection, fondness, and even, sometimes more love and attraction.
There are also changes you can challenge yourself to make, internally, as far as how to narrate your mental memoirs, and behaviorally, in how to engage with your relationship and your general life.
There is acceptance work you can do- internally, about your feelings, perspective, and about your partners’ imperfections.
Every relationship has its own challenges and resources.
Sometimes we need to begin by managing expectations.
While the love songs, movies, and novels might have us believe that a goal is:
“I love every little thing about you- even your flaws!”
I think that reality, even in very happy marriages, is often different. You can love someone deeply and dearly, and not necessarily feel that depth of love every moment or about every quirk or trait.
In relationships, it’s not a realistic goal to feel infatuated with a partner forever, or to pretend you are (even on social media). It’s more authentic to know and acknowledge (inwardly) the parts of them that are not our favorites, as well as what we do like about them (explicitly), just as most of us have parts of ourselves, our friends, and our relatives that are also not our favorites, and others that are. Without globalizing either side. People are packages.
There is a difference between being disappointed in a whole person and being disappointed in parts of that person. Also: people tend to blossom in response to positive regard and kind feedback, and to shrivel from excessive criticism or harsh judgement.
If you’ve made a mindful decision that overall, the person you’re with is the person with whom you want to stay, then the work becomes choosing to make the marriage as healthy and pleasant a place to be as possible for yourselves. That doesn’t mean you’re the only one doing the work. It’s up to both spouses to try and create warm interactions and mutual connection. But if you’re the one who’s less content, it might be your job to make specific requests.
Another suggestion I make for the disappointed individual, after allowing yourself to feel sad, or even grieve what your marriage isn’t, is to write down everything (or anything) you like/love, respect, value, admire, and appreciate about your spouse, on the good days. Try to keep it honest and accurate, and not to qualify it with exceptions or backhanded compliments. Read it back, try to make it authentic, and if it helps to subtly shift your focus. You can also write down how you’d like to feel about your partner; not harshly or sarcastically, but as a modest hope. You can refer back to these lists when you’re having a harder day, to remind yourself that there’s gratitude and hope here too. It’s not a cure, but it’s something.
Reading books or watching videos together about love, intimacy, and connection might help you improve your marriage as well. Content about personal growth and well-being might help motivate you at the individual level as you do this delicate work of both trying to accept the way things are, and also work at making them better. Individual therapy for yourself and/ or couples therapy could support you in these efforts. You might not feel like you have the “perfect marriage to the perfect partner” but you can work together gently, empathetically, collaboratively, towards becoming a constantly improving version of yourselves- individually and as a couple.
There is a book titled Relationship OCD by Sheva Rajaee which describes the anxiety associated with rumination about a relationship and techniques to address it.
*Are you enjoying this blog? Then you might also enjoy this: Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking