This past week I found myself wrestling with how to respond to certain disappointments (for clarity, and given the focus of this blog to make sure my family doesn’t feel the need to figure out what I think they did or didn’t do, these were not disappointments within my family). We’ve all been there, but it particularly struck me this go around that the nature of disappointment can lead to overreactions among both the disappointer and the disappointee. Further, those overreactions can lead to dislocations in relationships. Of course, nowhere is this more acute than in the context of family.
In most cases, disappointment is not a singular event. Rather, it generally is an accumulation of failed (oftentimes uncommunicated) expectations by someone in relationship with another. While theoretically disappointment could be something that happens all at one, in fact, given our typical tendency to avoid conflict, the first offense is rarely dealt with early on. We simply file it away and become that much more frustrated when the next offense occurs. Sometimes we’ll even start to pull other unrelated failures or flaws our disappointer may have and add that to our disappointment pile. Eventually the pile becomes too high to ignore. Or perhaps more properly, we decide that we will not ignore the pile any more.
Once the disappointee has reached this stage, he or she will act on it. Maybe silently, in the nature of avoiding contact, passive aggressive or snarky comments, excluding the disappointer from social engagements, and the like. But generally at some point with important relationships, the pile gets dumped out in all its glory right in front of the disappointer. It’s very rarely just a small sampling of the pile. Usually it’s the whole thing. It’s a release for the disappointee, but the longer and higher the pile has been curated, the more defensive, confused and hurt the disappointer will be. In fact, communicating disappointment can often be its own disappointment for the one on the receiving end.
So how do families, whether of wealth or not, properly deal with disappointments between themselves? Recognizing that I need to remind myself of some of these same things (and unfortunately sometimes fail to fully implement them), I offer the following suggestions:
- Realize that disappointment is not just “their problem.” Identify where you may have unfairly set or failed to communicate the expectations you might have of the one who disappointed you. You’ve got to own your own role in the matter, or resolution is rarely attainable.
- Recognize that the “dump of the pile” is not likely the best strategy to preserve relationships. You’ll just put them on the defensive and unburdening yourself of “constipated anger” is probably not worth the long-term damage that may occur.
- Remove items from the pile. Just do it. Whether they rightly belong in the pile or not, some things should just go. This is a type of forgiveness, but also a prudent move to reduce the defensiveness of the disappointer should you fail to hold back from the dump of the pile.
- Reflect on whether you started gathering the pile for something meaningless that probably should have been overlooked in the first place. Unlike a grain of sand to an oyster, you’ll not likely have generated a pearl by accumulating items in your disappointment pile.
- Restrict yourself to communications in love. You don’t need to get it all out if your goal is relational strength. Note that I didn’t say you shouldn’t get some of it out — open communication is critical in healthy families. But if the intent is to hurt, rather than restore, keeping your powder dry is a better option.
The above is from the disappointed party’s point of view. The disappointers do well to recognize that they’re being unloaded on and that it is an opportunity for communication to begin. This also involves maintaining a focus on the primary goal of healthy relationships in the face of a probably unfair pile dump.
As you might imagine, disappointment is a consistent topic in Family Wealth Counseling engagements. And that’s because it’s simply a human issue. But if a goal of strong, healthy relationships is more important than an individual’s need to be right or vindicated, we can overcome our frailty in this regard. We may need to be reminded of these more important goals from time to time, but families who truly wish to be strong do respond well to such reminders.
I hope the above doesn’t sound preachy, but if it does perhaps it’s because I needed to work through some of these issues myself. Even so, is this helpful?
This is an excellent post, Mark, and I completely agree with you in theory. In reality, however, I find that the reluctance to upset the apple cart–especially in wealthy families but certainly not exclusively to them, contributes significantly to the suppression of one’s desires in deference to the fulfillment of others’. This initial deference can be a mix of so-called respect for older generations in the family or an apparent effort to ‘get along’ with siblings or cousins, neither of which is truly accomplished by such deference if the effort is merely that – an effort. It requires significant confidence and self esteem to authenticate such deference–something that is often very difficult to achieve, particularly in families of wealth.
You’re absolutely correct — theory and reality don’t always line up. If only they would! There’s no magic cure-all, and many families are plagued by the effects of an unwillingness to communicate honestly about disappointments (and other things, too, of course). If, however, families truly wish to strive for excellence, and are willing to pay the cost to get there, I think there’s a potential to get theory and reality closer.
Your last sentence is particularly intriguing to me — and I think I’m inclined to agree with it wholly. But the question pregnant within it is why would families of wealth be less likely to have the confidence and self esteem necessary to deal with disappointments, etc., in a healthy manner.
Great post with lessons that go well beyond families and estate planning. Yvonne Eckert Olivere – I think you’ll find this a good read.
Especially like the bullet, “Restrict yourself to communications in love…” Very thoughtful post, Mark!
Incredibly thoughtful, and timely! Thanks Mark.
Communication on expectations is indeed the hub of working on a relationship. Thanks for encouraging a healthy approach to dealing with it, especially when disappointed, which can be the most challenging time.