What to Do When Your Spouse Disappoints You

A healthy response to disappointment can be a game-changer for your marriage.
By Chris Ownby
December 20, 2021

Disappointment hurts, especially from the one you love the most. And when your spouse disappoints you, you probably experience several emotions. Anger. Frustration. Hurt. Sadness. Bewilderment. (What were they thinking? Right?) 

Disappointment in your spouse can spark uncertainty and shake your trust. It might even make you wonder if you can rely on them at all. 

First, let me just say: You’re not alone, and every married person disappoints their spouse at some point. Your feelings are honest, legit, and okay. And even though disappointment is common in marriage, knowing that doesn’t really make things easier. So let’s talk about it. 

Some things to consider: 

Unmet expectations breed disappointment. 

Everybody enters marriage with a certain standard in mind.1 This is a good thing. It means you have relationship goals. You want your marriage to thrive. If your spouse lets you down, it hinders those goals. Enter disappointment and the emotions that follow. 

Ask yourself: 

What do you expect from your spouse? How do your expectations connect to your overall relationship goals? 

Disappointment comes in different flavors.

Although everybody experiences disappointment in marriage, it’s not all the same. It may stem from a specific issue. I can’t believe they forgot to take the trash out… again. Or, it can be more general. This is not how I thought it’d be.  

Disappointment can also happen over seemingly minor or explicitly major issues (whether it’s the trash or infidelity). Of course, disappointing situations feel major to you. That’s why they’re disappointing

Healthy responses to disappointment may be somewhat different depending on the situation.2 The big lesson here is to become aware of why you’re disappointed. 

Ask yourself: 

What exactly did your spouse do or not do that disappointed you? 

Is the disappointment in something specific or general? Issues that are minor or major? 

You are coping with your disappointment in one way or another. 

You can’t help but respond, whether involuntarily or by choice. Even if you’re not sure what to do, you may feel angry, passive-aggressive, secretly imagine getting back at them, or avoid the issue altogether. 

However, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope and respond. Choosing to respond in a healthy way is key to working through the disappointment.

Ask yourself: 

How are you coping or responding right now? Would you say your responses are healthy or unhealthy? 

Be careful about what your disappointment might lead you to assume. 

When your spouse disappoints you, it usually doesn’t mean

  • He or she is a bad person.
  • They aren’t right for you.
  • Your marriage is doomed.3

At the least, it means that expectations need to be clear. And for the more serious offenses, your partner may need help to overcome certain behaviors. (More on that in a bit.) 

Ask yourself: 

Why might your spouse have acted (or failed to act) the way they did that led to your disappointment? 

What do you do, then, when your spouse disappoints you? How do you handle it? 

  • Reframe it. Ironically, even though it feels like your disappointment drives you further away from your spouse, it can be an opportunity to grow closer. Try looking at it as a chance to clarify what you both expect and strengthen your marriage goals. 
  • Express it, but being aware of your composure is key. Remember: How you come across when you explain your disappointment influences your spouse’s response. 
  • Have forgiveness at the ready. Forgiveness is a process. But it’s tough to move forward if you harbor resentment and bitterness. 
  • Re-clarify your expectations. What do you specifically hope for from your spouse? Does your spouse think they can successfully meet your expectations? Work on compromises and talk about how expectations can be realistic and shared.
  • Ask your spouse how you can help each other be more successful at meeting expectations. 
  • Continually affirm your spouse for their effort. 

Realize that it might be best to seek a professional counselor’s advice at some point. This is especially true if your spouse’s behavior is recurring or addictive, or if they show apathy or disinterest in working toward a solution. Seeing a therapist together is best. But if they won’t go with you, seeing a counselor on your own can help you find healthy ways to cope. 

It’s not fun when your spouse disappoints you, but it is normal. And it’s a chance to be in a better place today than you were yesterday. Choosing healthy responses can help you grow closer to your spouse in the midst of disappointment.

Sources:

1Baucom, Epstein, N., Sayers, S., & Sher, T. G. (1989). The Role of Cognitions in Marital Relationships: Definitional, Methodological, and Conceptual Issues. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(1), 31–38.

2Lazarus R.S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer-Verlag

3Vangelisti, & Alexander, A. L. (2002). Coping with Disappointment in Marriage: When Partners’ Standards Are Unmet. In Understanding Marriage (pp. 201–227). Cambridge University Press. 

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