Fight Unrealistic Expectations

Learn to love your imperfect marriage.

By Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria | Ph.D. from The 7 Stages of Marriage

Take These Active Steps

Accept your own expectations — and your partner’s. These hopes and dreams — and even the “you shoulds” — are signs of deep needs. Your marriage cannot meet them all, but writing them off will leave each of you feeling unaccepted, alone, resentful.

Be realistic about what you do ask for. Your spouse probably can’t bring you coffee in bed each morning, prop up your self-image three times a day, or never start an argument. She probably can share the cooking and meal cleanup, spend more quality time with you, and learn to squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom a little more often. Agreeing to some realistic expectations creates a win-win situation and a buoyant feeling of success.

See what you can do yourself. Nicolle Hawthorne couldn’t quit her job and laze under the maple tree with a good novel after she married, but she realized she could look for a lower-stress job that would let her enjoy her marriage. A year later, she’d changed jobs and had more time for her marriage and ultimately a family.

Grieve what you can’t have. One of the toughest jobs in marriage is accepting that some items on your must-have list will never be fulfilled by your partner — simply because he or she isn’t perfect, and also because he or she isn’t obligated to be your personal fairy godmother. “When you really want something that is just not going to happen, you can either sulk, get angry, or do what every couple needs to do over the long term: grieve the losses that come with commitment,” say University of Denver marriage experts Howard J. Markman, Ph.D., and Scott M. Stanley, Ph.D., and psychologist Susan L. Blumberg, Ph.D., in their book Fighting for Your Marriage. Accepting your marriage and your mate despite imperfections is a long-term practice necessary for a happy, healthy relationship.

Use disappointment as a signal of unconscious expectations. When you feel disappointed in your marriage or your spouse, pause and think about what you expected. This builds awareness of the expectations guiding your attitudes and actions. Is your expectation reasonable? Is it better met on your own?

Don’t compare your spouse to other people’s spouses — or your marriage to other marriages. Focus on the love, laughter, drama, and struggles in your own world. There’s no perfect spouse, no perfect marriage. Resist the temptation to tell yourself “If only he were like my friend’s husband” or “If only our marriage were as [fill in the blank] as theirs.” Each marriage is unique, with its own highs and lows.

Look carefully at your expectations for yourself. This isn’t 1965, and you’re you—not your mom or your dad. Yet many newlyweds unconsciously expect themselves to be perfect housewives like Mom (even if they have jobs outside the home) or great-provider dads. Same goes for cultural stereotypes about perfect spouses.

When Margaret and Rich Martin got married, their colleagues at a Marietta, Georgia, newspaper gave them a grill that led Rich to an “aha” moment about his own expectations for himself as a husband. “The grill wasn’t assembled. You had to put it together,” he recalls. “I remember sitting there at our apartment getting madder and madder. Margaret tried to give me advice about putting it together, but obviously I didn’t want to listen to her. My ego was hurt. I was supposed to be able to do this myself! I’m a klutz at some things, but putting it together was an ego thing.”

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