What's needed to transform disappointment in a relationship into something livable in the present and useful for the future is that kind of empathy in which two people's selves take a backseat to a shared sense of each other's suffering. It is impossible to be defensive and empathic at the same time.
Empathy helps turn anger into sorrow. When sorrow becomes mutual, it begins to erase the lines drawn in the sand. Only then does the possibility of apology and forgiveness become real. I consider this sequence—anger, sorrow, apology, forgiveness—one of the most important developmental passages in marriage or in therapy with couples because it is a prerequisite for the restoration of innocence. That may sound strange, but what I mean is not the first innocence of childhood or infatuation but a kind of second innocence, innocence after experience, which is free from repetition and thus can treat a new moment as new. Repetition kills love. To experience the next moment with a person as a new moment—and therefore open to curiosity, surprise, even revelation—is the heart of love.
A flourishing intimacy is likely to demand an extraordinary amount of empathic and patient cultivation from both partners. Unfortunately, what we experience growing up in our families or viewing ads of gorgeous couples zooming off for ski vacations in their new BMWs does very little to teach us that creating a satisfying relationship is a difficult but worth while discipline, like mastering a craft or an art form. The first drafts of love are usually in need of considerable revision.
Romantic love is beautiful, but no matter how full the moon that first night, no matter how many willows are weeping and birds singing your song, you can't build years of relationship on that lovely, fragile foundation alone. Everything I've learned from my work with people disappointed in love points to this conclusion: A mature relationship doesn't begin until after disappointment.