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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Expectations in marriage: help or hindrance?

Which of these statements do you think is true?
  1. You often get what you expect, so you should have high expectations for your marriage and of your spouse.

  2. Unrealistic expectations in marriage will leave you disappointed, so you need to keep your expectations moderate and reasonable.

  3. When you give of yourself to your spouse with love and kindness, you should do so with no expectation of getting something in return.
So which is it? High expectations? Moderate expectations? No expectations?

The answer is all three.

Truths in Tension

Expectations have the potential to cause much damage to your marriage.

Expectations in marriage present us with a complex set of truths that need to be held in tension with each other. What I mean by that is that there are reasons for keeping your expectations high, for controling or limiting expectations, and for expecting nothing. The trick is to balance these three notions together.

What you'll find below are four different truths about expectations in marriage that come at the subject from different angles.

Expect the Best. Get the Best. (The Good)

The way you anticipate something actually changes the way you perceive it. Your reality is shaped by what you expect it to be. There are plenty of scientific studies to prove this truth. Plus, it just makes logical sense.

So when you expect the best from your spouse, you are more likely to see their behavior in a positive light. For example, if you expect and believe in your spouse's love, you are more likely to perceive their actions toward you as loving. On the contrary, if you doubt your spouse's love, or expect them to behave in an unloving manner toward you, you are more likely to perceive their actions and unloving. It's just the way your brain works.

So, expect the best from your husband or wife. Look for them to act with love toward you, and you are more likely to see them doing just that.

(If you are geeky, here's an interesting TEDx talk that explains the way our expectations shape our perceptions. For a slightly less geeky and funnier version, if you don't mind a little language, here's a Penn and Teller bit that shows what happens when you serve people tap water from a garden hose in a fancy bottle presented by a fictitious "water steward." )

Unrealistic Expectations (The Bad)

Here is a counterbalancing reality to keeping your expectations high: unreasonably lofty expectations of your mate and for your marriage will ultimately lead to feelings of disappointment and disillusionment. And when your spouse senses your disappointment (and they will),  three negative reactions may occur.

The first is guilt and shame. They believe they are not good enough, or at least that you think so. They will struggle to separate their actions from their worth. They may strike back with their own judgments of you and your behavior, which may lead to the second set of emotions: anger or resentment. They may perceive your expectations as unreasonable or unfair. They may dismiss out of hand the need you have that is at the root of your expectations. This spins into a downward spiral fairly quickly and may result in the third possible reaction: complete withdrawal.

We all have expectations. They are unavoidable. Some will be good and reasonable. Some will not be. Some will come from healthy sources, some less so. They are shaped by our experiences, personalities and perspectives.

How do we manage expectation in marriage in a positive and life-giving way? As a first step let me suggest how you can prevent or at least minimize unmet expectations.

Unmet Expectations (The Ugly)

Unmet needs are responsible for much of the conflict in marriage, and when this leads to unmet expectations, it can inflict significant damage on a relationship in the form of disappointment and disillusionment, anger, or withdrawal.

Everyone has needs and wants in their marriage.  For the most part these are a normal and healthy part of every relationship. And it's somewhat natural for us to expect that our spouse will meet our needs.

Unfortunately, not everyone does a good job of communicating their needs and wants in helpful ways. In some cases we may not even be able to identify our needs, much less communicate them clearly to our spouse. And if we do communicate our needs, we may not clearly state how we expect those needs to be met.

If we aren't even aware of our own needs and expectations, or cannot communicate them clearly, how can we possibly expect our partner be aware of them? And if they don't know about them, how can they possibly meet them?

The best way to head off the disappointment associated with unmet expectations is to voice your needs and wants in a respectful and loving way. It's essential for each of you to take the responsibility to express your needs without demanding or demeaning. When you talk about your needs, it's really important to explain to your spouse what that would look like to you.

That kind of "what would it look like" conversation is great for identifying and exposing your expectations.

For example, if I tell my wife that respect is really important to me, but I don't tell her what that looks like to me, then she may struggle to meet that need. However, if I tell her that, to me, respect means her trusting me and my judgment, appreciating my efforts to provide and care for her and the family, that gives her an idea of my expectations. This opens the door to further conversation about it. If she is unclear, she can ask clarifying questions. If I request something that seems unreasonable or unattainable, we can negotiate a path the leaves us both feeling satisfied.

Unconditional Love (The Ultimate)

Ultimately the best way to manage expectations and to keep them from becoming a wrecking ball in your marriage is to expect the best of each other and your marriage, and then to love each other unconditionally as you go about working to meet each other's needs and expectations.

Dare to ask, "How can I best meet your expectations in this area?" Voice your needs and desires clearly in a way that best helps your spouse to love you well, but then have plenty of grace for when they get it wrong, because one of your expectations should be that they will, in fact, get it wrong sometimes.

How have you managed expectations in your marriage? Where have expectations gotten you into trouble? Leave a comment.

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