Redefining expectations within your marriage

It usually starts small:

“Weren’t you going to take the garbage out?”
“Didn’t you have time to do the dishes today?”
“Did you forget to buy the groceries?”

Then it becomes personal:

“Why do I always have to do the dirty work?”
“Do you expect me to live in the kitchen?”
“What am I, Supermom?”

Simple miscommunications can create significant barriers in a marriage and often share a common source: unmet expectations.

“Hurt, disappointment and frustration result when there is a wide gap between what we expect and what actually happens,” says family therapist Mitch Temple in his book The Marriage Turnaround. “The closer we can get our expectations to line up with the truth, the less hurt we will experience.”

Want to set your marriage up for success? Start by redefining your expectations.

Identify the source of your expectations

Expectations within marriage can fall into different areas ranging from physical fulfillment to household responsibilities: Who’s going to cook? Who’s going to plan for Valentine’s Day? Who’s going to go grocery shopping? Who’s going to oversee financial matters?

When these questions are asked with respect, they can help establish marital roles and responsibilities. In contrast, when one spouse expects the other to fulfill those roles without first explaining their expectations and then together reaching a resolution, their once-peaceful home can become a toxic environment, inevitably leading to resentment and hurt.

“Getting verbally out of sync with your spouse is an all-too-common struggle,” marriage experts and The Marriage Code authors Bill and Pam Farrel say, adding that it takes two people to create a misunderstanding. “We think the problem is with the other person but, in reality, he or she is just the mirror that exposes the inconsistencies in each of us.”

To better navigate through misunderstandings, recognize that your expectations are likely influenced by your personal upbringing and that your spouse may not share the same set of influences. Then, find your common ground.

“When expectations are cut to the floor,” Temple says, “the best response is to . . . pick them up and rebuild them with greater determination. Use your new, more realistic expectations to reenergize your marriage.”

Don’t wait for a “soul mate”

Marriages consist of two flawed human beings. If you believe your current or future spouse will be a ready-made “soul mate,” you may tend to wrongfully expect problems to solve themselves.

“A soul mate is someone that you become,” says Temple. “It is a process that takes place in a marriage, over time. You don’t start there.”

This faulty point of view easily shifts the focus toward planning a blissful wedding day rather than preparing for a lifetime of companionship. According to a survey in Weddingbells magazine, the average Canadian couple spent 18.5 months planning their wedding in 2011 – typically costing more than $23,000 – yet the Vanier Institute of the Family reported that four out of 10 Canadian marriages will end in divorce before the 30th anniversary.

“We all entertain the thought that we should be able to get along with this person who has captured our heart because there is something special between us,” the Farrels say. “While this is true most of the time, it is nearly impossible to connect your life to another individual and not have significant disagreements.”

Rather than expecting your spouse to naturally fulfill all of your needs as soon as you enter into marriage, go in with the expectation that, over time, you will become all you can be for each other.

Take the burden off of your spouse

To set your marriage up for success, start by identifying your ultimate source of fulfillment. Remember that humans are limited beings and that true fulfillment can only come through a relationship with God; there’s a reason Jesus called Himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

“If you are waiting on someone else to make your life meaningful and happy, you will almost certainly be gravely disappointed,” says Todd Clements and Kim Beair, authors of First Comes Love, Then What? “When you learn how to be truly happy alone, you’ll begin to be the most successful in every relationship,” they add.

Research has found this to be true. In a study published by the Australian government’s Institute of Family Studies, the longest-married couples were pragmatic, didn’t expect a perfect marriage and focused on enjoying their relationship while accommodating their differences.

Recognize that you’re always going to be developing as an individual, then look for opportunities to strengthen your marriage through this new perspective.

Get realistic – it’s easier than you might think!

Redefining your expectations doesn’t have to be a monumental task. Get started with this simple exercise from Gary Chapman’s Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married:

  1. Each of you makes a list of all the things their fathers did around the house and of all the responsibilities their mothers saw after.
  2. Show your lists to each other and discuss why you think those respective roles existed in your parents’ marriages.
  3. Explain to each other how you expect roles and responsibilities to play out in your own marriage.
  4. Reach a common resolution and – if necessary – compromise on some expectations so you can move forward with a stronger and more unified marriage.

Todd Foley is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

Reference to the individuals quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

© 2011 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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