One Key to a Healthy Relationship You May Have Overlooked


The answer? Empathetic disappointment versus critical disappointment.

 I worked with a couple who had recently returned from a family vacation up North.  This couple, along with their two children set off for an adventure to New York City.  The husband, who is mostly busy working, was looking forward to a week away.  The wife, who home schools the children was also looking for a nice change of pace and scenery.  There were some good times and some less good times on the trip, and one argument which culminated after the family was moving slowly to get to a sightseeing event that the wife had planned and no one else seemed enthusiastic about.  Upon their return, their different experiences of the same trip began to emerge.  The husband overheard the wife describing New York negatively to a friend, and the wife learned after the fact about the resentment her husband felt about having to come home early for a sporting event for one of the kids.  It is the reactions from one to the other about their different perceptions of the trip that is being focused on here, not the differences themselves.  

There are two types of disappointment. One that can come from fusion in a relationship which is more likely to create critical interactions between people, and one that can come from differentiation which may create more empathy in the relationship.  

What is empathy? I would define empathy as ones ability to separate self enough from another person to sit along side their experience without taking it on as their own but to recognize and understand the persons emotion.  I would not think of empathy as becoming ‘one’ with the person in their feelings which may be a typical definition of the word.

What is fusion? Fusion in a relationship is when two people become overly invested and intwined in the other person at the expense of themselves.  In a relationship, there is often the covert expectation that people must act the same, be the same and have the same feelings to any given experience, and when this doesn’t exist, the relationship must be “bad”.  In a highly fused relationship, if one person has an emotion, the other person feels the need to respond, react, and/or take accountability for that persons emotion, losing sight of their own individual experience and understanding of the situation.  This shared brain often causes tension and unrealistic expectations of the others role in ones life and more problems exist in these relationships.  A dependence is formed where loss of self ensues.

What is differentiation? Differentiation on the other hand, is when two people who love and are committed to each other can operate in their own sphere with respect for the differences between them.  It’s ones ability to remain thoughtful versus simply emotional during a heightened time of tension, which usually is a result of a difference of opinion.  Being and having a self in a relationship is differentiation.  The higher the level of differentiation, the fewer problems there tend to be between the two people, because instead of just reacting  emotionally to each other, they can have a thoughtful and communicative interaction.  They take accountability and responsibility for their own lives.

With that lesson out of the way, lets get back to the couple who traveled to New York for a lovely family vacation. The wife said that she didn’t need to go back to NYC and that the trip was a lot of work and not much of a vacation.  He said how disappointed he was to hear her say this because they had spent a lot of money and had planned the trip and he just couldn’t understand why in the world she would have that view.  He was angry about it.  This set off a defensive response in her to say, if he had helped her more with the planning maybe she could have enjoyed herself more.  This set off a defensive stance within him and said that she was the one who wanted to be busier than the rest of them and they were fine with just having the down time. He expressed a fair amount of disappointment that the trip was cut off early to get back to town and she was angry at him for feeling this way and couldn’t understand why he would have such a response to supporting their daughter and her team.  Add face contortions and furrowed brows and criticisms being lobbed back and forth across a net that felt more like a tall brick wall and you can imagine the tension in the room.

This whole interaction came from a place of, “fusion disappointment.”  Fusion can be like a wolf in sheeps clothing because one might jump to the conclusion that this conversation stemmed from a place of distance and growing a part.  It’s a common mistake.  Instead, this conversation stems from fusion, too much togetherness and too close in the expectation of experiences.  We didn’t have the same response to an experience, therefore we must fight and argue about it to prove whose experience was correct, right or accurate.  What??  When written this way, we can see how silly and unrealistic this is, but it happens all the time between couples.  Having different perceptions of the same experience infuriates people! This couple also went out to dinner and she loved the meal and he did not.  She was angry and irritated with him he didn’t like the meal because she took responsibility for that particular reservation.  That may be true but that does NOT mean she needs to take responsibility for his reaction to his experience of the meal.  That’s his and he’s entitled to own it!

Now lets take the above situation and translate it coming from a place of, “differentiation disappointment.  Imagine this, two people in the world walking side by side, living life doing the best they can each do.  Living, learning, experiencing life through their own individual lens that is completely unique to them.  Sharing their experiences in the world with a loved one coming from a place of interest and curiosity, sharing for the sake of letting the other person catch a glimpse of their path they are clearing.  There is an understanding of each persons separateness that allows for space and respect.  With this in mind, when the wife shares that she doesn’t need to go back or that the state was definitely not her favorite and it wasn’t the best trip, the husbands response would be more out of love and empathy.  A response may be: (exaggerated for the sake of the point), ‘Oh no, my wife whom I love and care for did not have a great experience.  I have empathy for her that her vacation was not as she had hoped.  I am so curious and interested to know how she could have enjoyed her experience more.’  He doesn’t take responsibility for her or get critical of her view, he accepts it as her own and has interest in what her thinking was around it.  If the husband expresses frustration that the trip was cut short, she responds with love and empathy that the person she loves felt disappointment at the objective experience. She might express how hard she knows he works and can understand how important that free time away from the city he works in is to him.  His feeling of frustration at the experience belongs to him, it’s how he chooses to view it and she does not need to take responsibility for his choice of reaction (they did make the choice together on the front end to come back).  She can listen and love and empathize but it isn’t hers, it’s his.   

On the other side of this is the importance of not blaming someone else for your reaction to the experiences.  The old, “If he did this, then I could do that” mentality sets oneself up for blame of the other which weakens you. If he could have worked harder with the planning and not left everything to me, then I could have had a better time.  It would be much harder for the husband to have ‘empathetic disappointment’ if she is outwardly blaming him for her experience.  Her non-blaming outlook might look like this: Next time I won’t work as hard to plan and then be resentful.  Instead I will include and engage in conversation each persons hope and expectation for their own vacation.  If I wan’t to see a show and no else does, I’ll go alone! 

Remember that separating the shared brains will actually allow you to feel more loving and close to your partner.

So go forth in your travels, and remember taking responsibility for your view of the world is mandatory for contentment and happiness and allowing someone to have a reaction to a life experience without judgment or criticism is key to a healthy and loving relationship. ❤️


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