I suspect that most interpersonal conflicts are really based in disappointment. We’re disappointed that the other person didn’t do what we wanted them to do. Think about it. The last time you were mad at someone, why were you mad at them? Nine times out of ten it’s because they disappointed you. They didn’t show up on time, didn’t say the right thing, did something you disapproved of, or weren’t there for you in the way you needed them to be. They didn’t do, say, or feel what you wanted them to.
A friend is catering another friend’s benefit event, and was feeling frustrated because people he had recruited to help him didn’t come through. The day before the event, he had nobody to help him cook, prepare, pack, or deliver the food, and had to scramble to be able to get things ready. It occurred to me that one of the problems in the situation is that my friend hadn’t counted on these other people’s proven tendency to flake out. This type of thing had happened before with this group, and he had been left scrambling. At the very least, he could have followed up sooner and known earlier that the people in question weren’t going to be able to help. In a sense, he had set himself up to be disappointed, because he had expected these people to act differently than they had in the past. This line of thinking made me realize that the best way to avoid being disappointed is to accept people for exactly who they are.
If your partner habitually forgets your anniversary, you view the upcoming anniversary with some anxiety, right? You believe he’ll forget again, and you can taste the disappointment and anger, even before it happens. Then he forgets again and you get upset. “This happens every year,” you say, “Why can’t you just remember!?” Sure, if it’s important to you, he should make an effort to remember. But if he doesn’t, and hasn’t for most years, isn’t the disappointment you feel somewhat on your own shoulders, for expecting him to be someone that he isn’t? In this case, you might consider taking his remembering on as your responsibility (writing it on the calendar in the kitchen for instance, or reminding him a few days before). But how many of us (and I’m guilty of this as well) will actually avoid mentioning it or writing it down, as if to catch him forgetting, so we can be justified in getting mad? Isn’t that entrapment?
The funny thing is that the people who disappoint us the most bitterly are often the people we know the best. This seems counterintuitive, because if we know these people so well, why would we expect them to behave in ways that they never have? I have a friend who is almost always late when we make a date to go out. For years and years, I would boil, fume, and make snarky comments to her every time she was late. But eventually, I stopped expecting anything else, and now, not only doesn’t it bother me when she is late, she’s not late as often anymore. I used to feel uncomfortable around my mother because I felt that she rarely asked questions about my life or my work. It felt like she didn’t care. But when I was able to drop the expectation that she be someone she wasn’t, it didn’t bother me anymore. I know what we talk about (movies, food, travel, family), and I know what we tend not to talk about, and I’m pleasantly surprised when we end up talking about something that goes deeper than our normal conversations.
How do we accept the people around us for who they are, and not for who we want them to be?
1) Understand who they are in the first place. I have a bad habit of trying to find psychological reasons that explain why people don’t act the way I would in a situation. I can always come up with some seemingly sound psychological reason why Steve doesn’t respond to the emotional content of my emails or Jodie never answers her phone and takes days to call back. But the reason why isn’t important. How do they act? What are their patterns? That’s who they are. End of story.
2) Practice gratitude for who they are. Make it a habit of noticing what the people around you bring to your life. Once, when a boyfriend hadn’t done something I had wanted him to do, I was really angry as I got something out of the refrigerator to cook on the stove, and remembered suddenly that the he had bought and installed both the fridge and the stove for me, not to mention built my new, beautiful front porch. Yes, he hadn’t done something I wanted, but he showed his love for me every day in other ways. That moment reminded me that, most of the time, it’s “and” not “but.” Not “I love you but wish you hadn’t done that” but “I love you and I wish you hadn’t done that.” Real love is not conditional on the other person always doing what we want. Can you drop your disappointment and see the other person’s gifts?
3) Understand why you want them to act differently. If Steve doesn’t respond in the way I would like to my emails, I need to think about what it is I need from him. Why does this disappoint me so? Is it because I want to feel emotionally connected in a way I don’t? Do I need to feel reassured that I’m okay emotionally? What we’re feeling is our mind’s attempt to get us what we need, but maybe it’s not really about this other person.
4) Take ownership of your expectations. Don’t give those expectations to someone else and make it their responsibility. Of course, communicate your expectations (“I’d really love it if you could remember our anniversary”) but if you’ve communicated it and the person doesn’t meet them, then drop it. If it’s a deal-breaker, end the relationship. If not, let it go and figure out how to make things work anyway.
It’s tragically common that so many of us spend so much of our conversations with one another complaining about other people. And why do we complain? Because the other people have disappointed us. Our partners, our parents, our kids, our coworkers. We always have a story about someone who’s done us wrong. But what if, in fact, no wrong was done at all, and in fact what we’re experiencing is merely the reality that other people aren’t us? Once we realize this, we must face the fact that disappointment is normal and common, but we’re the ones who lend it drama and pain. Can we let go of our attachment that our loved ones be different than they are, and simply appreciate and love them for who they actually are?