Healthy Relationships 1.21: Expectation to Alienation Progression

What to Expect When You’re Expecting This or That

Most people enter partnerships expecting that the relationship will duplicate the positive experiences in their family of origin and replace the negative experiences with positive ones. The operating styles (see last three posts) of relational pursuer and relational distancer contribute to these expectations, in that pursuers usually expect an intense emotional connection and attachment, and distancers expect acceptance of themselves as they are, including their need for space.

When these expectations are unmet, disappointment sets in, followed by anger hurt or both. If the emotional reactivity is sustained due to unresolved problems in the relationship or additional disappointments, resentment and bitterness develop. After a prolonged state of bitterness, one partner may decide that remaining vulnerable is too costly, and create a symbolic bridge to an “island of invulnerability,” a place where he or she cannot be hurt, or even reached, emotionally. Alienation then sets in and the relationship will either eventually dissolve or will be maintained only through triangulation.

Identifying Expectations: Emptiness

Two concepts, emptiness and triangles, can help individuals identify the expectations with which they entered the partnership, tracing the course of those expectations back through the years of disappointment and conflict to emotional alienation. This understanding can pave the way for processing and eventually neutralizing the negative emotions.

Emptiness refers to a package of emotions, including but not limited to feeling: loneliness, personal nothingness, confusion, hopelessness, helplessness, lack of belonging, sadness, unimportance, shame, failure, paranoia, abandonment, and emotional death. People avoid their emptiness in many ways including, muddling around in it but never really feeling it, focusing on other people’s problems, avoiding closeness, being depressed and focusing on the depression rather than on the emptiness it represents, and filling it with relationships, things or activities.

If emptiness is there, it is functional to enter it and find out what it’s all about. This requires a person to seek out his or her emptiness by taking actions that will raise the feelings to the surface, such as avoiding the things that he or she typically chooses to escape the feelings. Alcohol, drugs, religious platitudes, food, sex, TV, sports, and children are some of the ways that people use to distract themselves from their own emptiness.

Entering your emptiness will eventually take you back to its origin—usually in the family of your childhood—where old wounds and losses can be identified, grieved and resolved. This has the effect of neutralizing the negative emotions of unmet partnership expectations so that they no longer have power to derail the present relationship. When people undertakes this process, they soon learn why they wanted to avoid their emptiness. It’s just painful. Staying the course requires tenacity, conviction, courage, and faith that an honest process will lead to a healthier, less painful place in the end.

Identifying Expectations: Triangles

Exploring the triangles of the relationship is another way to unearth the emptiness at the core of the emotional reactivity of the individuals in a partnership. Under what conditions does each partner seek to unload the tension onto another party, object or activity? Identifying these patterns can help partners discover what expectations they were hoping the other would fill, and can uncover the investment one was making in changing the other so that the partner could meet the unmet needs of a fantasy.

Care should be taken to be sure that tracking these expectations back through the disappointment, hurt, anger, and bitterness to wounds that predate the partnership not be used to divert attention from any legitimate and repetitive patterns of harm in the present relationship.

Still, linking the present feelings of bitterness to the pre-partnership expectations will inevitably lead to the extended family experience. Doing so can relieve the present relationship of bitterness that belongs in another time, place and relationship. This work usually requires a professionally trained guide, such as a family therapist.

Leaving Your Island of Invulnerability

Finally, anyone on islands of invulnerability must take the risk of leaving the alienation and isolation, for the purpose of becoming immersed in the interpersonal process of partnership. If this does not occur, the partnership is doomed to chronic conflict or eventual dissolution. The more entrenched the bitterness and distrust, the more of a risk it is to leave the island of invulnerability. The individuals must believe that resolving the conflict must be worth the effort and emotional toll, or they simply will not put in the (mutual) effort to make it happen.


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