How to overcome unmet expectations in marriage
I heard about a woman who was newly married and had her first fight with her husband. In her anger, she immediately jumped in the car and headed to her mom and dad’s house. As she and her mom talking, she said, “Mom, I’m so mad and hurt. He has said some terrible words to me. Words I never thought I’d hear him say.”
Concerned, her mom asked what words he was saying. The daughter replied, “Terrible words. Words like ‘cook’, ‘clean,’ and ‘laundry!’”
One of the hardest things to overcome in any relationship, especially in marriage, is the danger of unmet expectations. We spend a lifetime learning from our family, friends, teachers, and mentors how to expect others to act. Those expectations can become ingrained. They’re not necessarily bad, they’re just how we perceive the world and the people around us.
It’s easy to understand, then, that when two people get married, and they both bring in these expectations, they can quickly and easily start to create some drama. The list is endless: money, housework, sex, children, church, in-laws, and on and on. And each of those can represent its own long list of expectations.
So how do you stop the pain that’s caused, usually inadvertently, by failing to meet your spouse’s expectations? Here are some suggestions that can help.
If you’re reading this and are not yet married, please do this exercise when you get engaged. If you poll any number of married couples, you’ll find that 100% of them would say communicating your expectations before saying, “I do,” is incredibly valuable and that they wished that had.
Understand your own expectations.
Take some time to write out your list of what you expect from your marriage or from your spouse. Start with a list of ten, thinking about what you expect from him or her when it comes to the list of items above. Almost certainly, as you write the ones you know you’ll start to find others you didn’t even realize you’re bringing into your marriage. Remember, this is not a time to fix your spouse. If you’ve been married long enough, you might be tempted to aim these expectations as a weapon more than an assessment. Once you’ve both made your list, then it’s time to…
Talk about them with your spouse.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just make the list of expectations, hold on to it, and get mad whenever he or she didn’t meet one them? Well, that’s probably not the best approach. Schedule some intentional time to discuss your lists. Talk about what you thought marriage would be and how it’s been different than that. Talk about the things you’ve been disappointed about on the list and the things that you’ve been pleasantly surprised about. Establish ground rules for your discussion: pray first, no fighting or judgment, be honest and open about your own and your spouse’s expectations.
Make a plan.
Once you’ve talked about them, you need a plan to start working through them. Typically, they’ll fall into one of a few categories. The first is the easiest; they’re the ones that are being met and everything is clicking along really well. Those are the ones we like, so just thank your spouse, give them a kiss, and move on.
The second are the expectations that are easy to let go of. Sometimes, just the fact that you said it out loud either changes your perspective or enlightens your spouse and the resulting change is simple to make. Maybe you prefer that when the towels are put in the linen closet, the fold is facing the door. Maybe your spouse had no idea of that and now that he or she knows, it’s an easy change to make, and you don’t have to get secretly angry when you open the closet in the morning and accidentally grab two towels because now the folds are nice and orderly. Piece of cake, time to move on.
The last category are the tough ones, the ones that are going to take some work. Maybe they’re the ones that have caused some deep wounds or lasting pain. Remember to stay humble, honest, and open, both as you speak and as you listen. It might be that you need outside help to address and correct these. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to seek it out, whether it’s another godly couple who can mentor and lead you through it, professional counseling, or a Care Appointment offered at The Creek. God puts people in our lives who can help us, so find those people and lean on them.
We saved the best for last. Once you’ve made your lists, discussed them, and made a plan to address them, commit them to God. Pray for those expectations and for your spouse, then expect Jesus to work. Expect your own heart to be softened, expect your relationship to grow to new levels, expect to become an example to people around you. And expect to use your experience to give back to other couples as they come to you seeking to follow your example.
Marriage is hard work, but it’s a wonderful gift. And it’s a beautiful picture of how Jesus loves the church, so do everything you can to show the world that picture through your marriage.