Fight Unrealistic Expectations

Learn to love your imperfect marriage.

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

One October morning less than three months after her marriage, Nicolle Hawthorne sat in her Jamesburg, New Jersey, kitchen holding a half-finished cup of cold coffee. The maple tree in the backyard had turned gold, the sun was shining — and she had to get ready for the long drive to her job as a newspaper reporter. I’m married now, she found herself thinking grumpily. Why do I still have to work? Why can’t my husband support me? I want to stay home!

“The thought shocked me, then made me laugh,” she recalls. “I loved my job and hadn’t ever considered leaving it. We also needed the income. I realized that part of me wanted a very traditional marriage — and a break from the daily grind. Here I was blaming my husband for an unspoken and rather silly expectation I’d been carrying around since I was a little girl watching The Donna Reed Show!”

Unspoken, half-hidden expectations about married life put wives and husbands to the test in the Realization stage. These “rules” form in childhood and our teen years as we watch our parents’ marriages and absorb silent imperatives about the roles of husbands and wives from society; from our cultural and religious affiliations; and from TV shows, movies, and books. Previous romances and even friendships further shape our expectations. And at a deeper level, we often believe our spouses will somehow intuit and heal our deepest psychic wounds.

These fantasies tumble out after marriage (much to the surprise of couples who’ve lived together for years before marrying), prompted by the promise of a safe, happily-ever-after love. But imaginary fantasies about what your spouse should or shouldn’t do are dangerous, experts say. If you barely realize you’re holding your partner up to an impossible standard, you may feel disappointed if he or she can’t read your mind and doesn’t take steps to fix childhood hurts and magically create a perfect marriage.

“When a couple is still infatuated with each other, you don’t need much because you’re still enjoying that chemical high,” says marriage expert Pat Love, Ed.D., author of Hot Monogamy. “You expect very little, you feel great, and you’re spending a lot of time trying to please each other. But as the relationship deepens, expectations change. And when you’re not getting those needs met, suddenly your partner can do little that pleases you — everything seems annoying. Every frustration just proves that your relationship’s not right, not good. You may start arguing, but not about the real issues that are bothering you.”

Often that’s because you don’t even realize what the real issues are — or are afraid to speak up because you don’t want to rock the boat. Your first step? Uncover your hidden expectations about marriage — a set of sometimes shocking, sometimes humorous, often very vulnerable beliefs. They range from who should perk the morning coffee to when you’ll have children, from who makes the investments to how often you’ll make love, from what your spouse should say about your new haircut to how you’ll greet each other in the morning.

New expectations can arise at crucial turning points in marriage, such as when you buy a home, plant your first garden together, become parents, deal with a major illness, enter the empty-nest stage, or even in the later years of a long relationship. Building good exploration skills now will help you uncover what’s really on your mind at any stage in your relationship.

Don’t get us wrong. Not all expectations are unreasonable. And you shouldn’t write off your expectations, either. Once you’ve got a handle on your personal expectations — and hopefully, your partner’s done the same — compare notes with your partner. Discuss them as a way of getting to know each other more deeply, using the assertive speaking and empathetic listening skills you’ll learn about later in this chapter.

Decide which expectations you can meet for each other. It’s important to make an effort to please your spouse by taking actions that meet his or her needs, even if they aren’t part of your personal view of the perfect marriage. And use other expectations as the starting point for personal discovery and growth: Maybe you expected your mate and your marriage to bring new excitement and adventure into your life, but things are more staid than you expected. Explore activities you can pursue on your own: A kayaking or sailing class? Jewelry making? Rock climbing?