Fight Unrealistic Expectations

Don’t let your fantasies get in the way of reality.

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 funny quotes about marriage will keep you laughing through the pain.

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?

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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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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