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How to Stay Connected to your partner through Shared Disappointment

Updated: Jun 22


Man and woman facing away from each other on tan couch

"One of the biggest threats to a relationship is feeling alone despite being in a relationship

 

Loneliness is probably one of the biggest relationship-killers of all time. It's such a frustrating experience because we often don't know how it began. One potential contributor I recently learned more about from my own marriage was the differing ways partners can process difficult emotions. In our case, it was a shared disappointment. To clarify, successful relationships don't require partners to think or do things exactly same way. Our differences are a big part of why we're drawn to each other. What could have become problematic was the fact that initially we didn't bridge those differences, find a way to come together and stay connected. And as we found out, this is especially important when you're going through a difficult emotion like a shared disappointment. Ugh - not the most enjoyable of human emotions. And two people experiencing at once makes it even more challenging.


Disappointment to me, is the emotion that hits us when something unexpected abruptly counters something we were anticipating. And the recent disappointment Nic and I navigated while traveling was challenging both personally, and as a couple. So this post is about sharing our insights, how we 'muddled' through it, and what we learned about each other along the way. And hopefully, you'll gain something you find useful in own relationship.

 

The Back Story

My nephew got married in Italy this past May! It was a long-anticipated event that we were really looking forward to as a family. This wasn't just a travel opportunity. It was a chance to see family members (and their new spouses) who I hadn't seen in years. In the past, I got to see my nieces and nephews more often as they were growing up because they all lived in the same city. We skied together, did a few holidays together and three of them moved out west to the city I was living in to attend college. Then we moved and life got busy. They all graduated and went on with their lives. One went into the armed forces and the others got spread around the country as they followed job opportunities. Then more time went on. Some of them got married and one even just had their first child. So this wedding was not only a chance to see my brother again, but was also going to be a fantastic way to catch up with extended family and for Nic to get to know them all a bit better. Then... we got hit with the COVID bug two days before the event. And we were laid up in bed and had to (sigh) bypass the entire weekend. 

 

 

Different ways of processing emotional upset.

stick figure walking in grass with another figure sitting in a cave

We all know humans have a lot of differences, despite having so much in common. And depending on personal history, emotional nervous system development and adaptive coping styles, there can be several different ways of healthily resolving or getting through uncomfortable emotions. One way isn't better or worse than the other. Emotional processing styles can simply be different. The trick is to not get so absorbed in our own style, that we lose connection to our partner.

 

For the disappointment I just described, Nic wanted to pretty much 'hole up', close the curtains in our rented apartment and recenter himself by watching movies in the dark. This was restorative to him.

 

As for me, I wanted to be outside, in motion and centering myself by taking in the sunshine and breathing in salt air from the coast. This was restorative to me. 

 

For the purpose of telling our story, let's call these different ways of processing emotion the 'cave dwelling' and 'meadow walking' approaches. Silly descriptions perhaps, but let me use them to show you how we lost connection to each other, despite doing a pretty good job at allowing for each other's individual needs.   


 

How connection gets lost and how you can bridge it.  

stick figure walking in grass with another figure speaking from in front of a cave

For the "Cave Dwellers"  

 

Let's start by saying that this can be a tough crowd! But they can also be very thoughtful and introspective given time and space. Just meaning, they can sometimes be really hard on themselves, have high self-expectations and sometimes internally compare themselves to others (like to those annoying meadow-walkers) in unhelpful ways. If Nic and I are experiencing a shared disappointment, this self-comparison can unintentionally widen the distance between us. Self-comparison has a voice that says it's ‘you’ versus ‘me’ - which doesn't help with connection. Cave Dwellers also like to work through problems quietly, with thought, writing or sometimes while working on hobbies. Sometimes they prefer to process, or think through something, initially in solitude, then come together once they have formulated their insights.

 

Some easy missteps that a Cave Dweller can make are -

 

  • Withdrawing into solitude for long periods of time, thinking that Meadow Walkers don’t need them, that they're 'just fine', independently taking care of themselves and staying busy.They sometimes forget that although their Meadow-Walking partner may be capable of taking care of themselves, that 'meadow' can be lonely without them, and they may be feeling disconnected. Or ..

 

  • believing they must know answer or understand something fully, in order to be helpful. Or..

 

  • Sometimes Cave-Dwellers do the opposite, overcompensate and listen too long without a break to their more verbally-expressive partner. This can lead to zoning out and feeling exhausted and drained - none of which fosters connection.

 

What can help with re-connection 

 

If you process emotional upheaval more like a Cave Dweller, minimize comparison and trust that you know what you need. Be okay with it, give yourself self-compassion while also checking in on your partner. If cave-dwellers don't stay mindful, it can be easy to spiral and get lost in 'the dark' of that cave. I think you know what I’m talking about. Yes, Cave Dwellers need time to themselves. AND.. they also need to reach out on occasion, check in with their partner, and do their best to come out of the cave and join them in the meadow.


stick figure standing and talking to seated figure in a cave

For the "Meadow Walkers" 

 

This can be a highly-autonomous bunch! Meaning, for a variety of reasons, they're used to taking care of themselves. Motivating and encouraging others is familiar. And although born from good intention, the way they process emotional upset can sometimes be overwhelming for their cave-dwelling partner. Meadow Walkers like to process while in motion, prefer to stay busy and encourage the same in their partner. Which isn't a bad thing in small amounts. But too much prodding and encouragement can inadvertently send the message that their partners cave-dwelling style isn’t acceptable to them. And non-acceptance doesn't support connection. Meadow Walkers also prefer to process verbally. Interaction and conversation (which in large amounts can be overwhelming to a Cave Dweller) help organize their thoughts and feelings. 

 

Some easy missteps that a Meadow Walker can make are -

 

  • Thinking that their Cave-Dwelling partner needs more support from them than they really do, simply because they are quiet and processing internally. Frequent questions and over-zealous support can sometimes inadvertently send a message that you're not sure your partner is capable, or that their style of processing isn't acceptable to you. 

 

  • Misinterpret their partners need for quiet and space as withdrawal or rejection. 

 

  • And sometimes Meadow Walkers even overcompensate, do the opposite and completely 'steer clear' of a struggling partner, unnecessarily amplifying their loneliness.



What can help with re-connection.

 

If you process emotional upheaval more like a Meadow Walker, do what work for you, while also acknowledging that your partner processes differently. Don’t take it personally. They are not rejecting you. Most likely, they're not trying to pull away from you unless you've overstepped boundaries. Your partner may simply be responding and processing disappointment in a way that's different than yours. So check in periodically, encourage them to occasionally come out of 'the cave' for air. And maybe even step into 'the cave' with your partner for a short time. (I'll give an example below).

 

The Summary

 

These examples are of course very general and reflective of our relational experience. Every couple has nuances that only each of them know. But overall we learned that...

 

The biggest disruption to our relational connection was feeling completely alone, even though we shared the same disappointment.


two stick figures holding hands in grass with empty cave

Some helpful ways to bridge different styles

 

Although the experience started out poorly, you can probably imagine that I was thrilled, amazed and a little proud of our growth as a couple when my 'cave-dwelling' husband stepped out and said -

 

“We need a family meeting. I feel disconnected and don’t know how to partner you through this”.

 

My heart melted. And at the same time I was also a little sad that I didn't catch the disconnection myself. So we talked about our shared disappointment of missing such an important family event and being sick on vacation in such a beautiful, romantic place. And we figured out a solution of periodic checkins with interjections of hugs and affection when we could, paired with me watching part of a movie with him in bed, and him coming out for dinner or a walk and talk with me each evening.

 

In addition to periodic check-ins, this intentional effort to step into each others ‘recovery style’ (even if just for a short while) sent the unspoken message,

 

"I accept your individuality and needs and know you are capable.." and

 

"you matter so much to me that I'm willing to connect with you in your world".


two stick figures sitting on ground in cave

>> If you only had time to skim through this reading right now, click below to watch a 3-minute recorded summary. 






 

The Human Infusion Project is a grassroots, not-for-profit personal development platform that draws from the combined fields of modern brain science, applied psychology and spiritual philosophy. Our mission aims to augment and supplement the work of professional practitioners in simplified, practical ways, and to give clients an affordable home program they can use in between sessions. 100% of all online class profit funds the Wellness Assistance Grant. If financial constraints limit your participation, please contact me and we'll work something out.



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