When Expectations Collide
Unspoken assumptions may be at the root of conflict and disappointment in your marriage.
Dorothy Littell Greco
Not long after my husband and I got married, we started having conflicts about what it meant to be home in time for dinner. After negotiating what seemed like a reasonable compromise, we developed a routine: he’d be late, I’d get angry, he’d apologize, and then we would have a déjà vu moment a few weeks later.
This was just one of many areas of conflict. We disagreed on how much food to prepare when we had guests, how quickly bills should be paid, and how often we needed to visit our extended families. We also fought about who should do the laundry and who should get the oil changed.
The frequency and intensity of our conflicts confused us. We were both communicative and reasonably mature. Why did we clash so much on these seemingly incidental issues? The problem wasn’t simply that we were strong-willed and opinionated. Unbeknownst to us, we entered marriage with a moving van full of expectations.
Expectations, in and of themselves, aren’t evil. In fact, they can often be very good. They help us understand our basic needs and wants. They play a valuable role in marriage: if we can’t expect certain things from our spouse, our marriage is vulnerable to failure.
Every couple will have their own unique expectations, but I would argue that there are three non-negotiables for every marriage: fidelity, honesty, and forgiveness. Some other expectations Christopher and I have are that we’ll work through conflict in a timely fashion, spend reasonable amounts of time together, and equitably share household responsibilities.
Few would find fault with those expectations. But, if you have been married more than a month, you will immediately notice the potential problem with the additional expectations Christopher and I have. What exactly does “timely fashion” mean: an hour or a full day? Does “reasonable” refer to one evening a week or five? Who determines what’s “equitable”? Because none of us clearly define our terms before saying “I do,” there’s bound to disappointment and conflict connected to expectations. After twenty-five years of marriage I am convinced that we can reduce the intensity, duration, and frequency of these conflicts if we take the time to understand the expectations we bring into marriage.
Our Expectations Are Shaped at an Early Age
Expectations emerge out of needs and preferences, both of which exist before we even celebrate our first birthday. Despite the fact that language skills are months away, babies have an uncanny ability to communicate their likes and dislikes. Our first-born had to be swaddled or he screamed. Our second wailed when his diaper was the least bit damp. Our third howled unless we allowed him to sleep on top of us. (This lasted for six long months.) Each one of our sons developed expectations based on their unique physical, spiritual, and psychological needs. The quality and consistency of the care that a young child receives shapes their expectations for future relationships.
The truth is that, for all of us, many of the expectations we bring into our marriage were actually formed before we even got our driver’s license. If our relationship with our parents and extended family was whole and healthy, we learned that when we expressed a need, someone would meet it. However, because we’re part of a broken world, we may have also learned some unfortunate lessons. Perhaps when you made a mistake, you were harshly punished, or if you displayed anger, you were shamed and isolated. Our expectations tend to be a mix of healthy and not so healthy.
In addition to our individual family systems, different cultures have distinct preferences and norms that influence our expectations. Evan is a Chinese American who grew up in California and Samantha, his wife, is a Caucasian from New England. Evan’s culture valued the family and their community over the individual and was shame-based (when a culture uses principles of honor and shame to correct behavior or attitudes). In sharp contrast, Samantha’s New England Yankee culture was highly individualistic and direct. Early on in their marriage, they regularly clashed about what it meant to own their mistakes. She felt he was dodging and he felt she was shaming. How are we to compromise in the face of such divergent expectations?
When Sin, Wounds, or Fear Are Driving Your Expectations
The first step in reducing conflicts connected to expectations is discerning what drives them. Assuming the expectation is not one of the healthy, non-negotiables I mentioned earlier, it’s helpful to figure out if the expectation is driven by a sin, a wound, or fear.
Sin: Sin-based expectations tend to be seeped in selfishness. For example, consider a husband who expects his wife to satisfy his sexual needs on demand even though she’s an abuse victim; a wife who expects her husband to be verbally affirming every day even though he’s kinesthetic and prefers acts of service over words of affirmation; or, a husband who expects his wife to do most of the household chores even though she works too. Expectations that are fueled by selfishness often result in turmoil, shame, and hurt feelings.
Wounds: Expectations linked to sin are not the same as expectations that are born out of wounds or painful events in our past. When I was twelve, my grandfather died and our extended family fractured due to some poor choices and miscommunication. After two of my father’s siblings moved out of state, he turned to liquor to numb his pain. This eventually led to my dad’s full-blown alcohol addiction lasting more than a decade. During my teenage years, dinner could be a tense affair. Would Dad be on time? Would he be sober? If he wasn’t, how would Mom respond? There was an obvious connection between my childhood wounds and the meal-time strife Christopher and I experienced. His struggle to detach from work uncovered my unresolved pain and amplified my unprocessed anger. My expectation did not help him feel loved or grow in his time management skills—nor did it help me to forgive my father.
Fear: When past trauma or unredeemed wounds leave behind a residue of fear, we often create expectations about how others should act in the hope of protecting ourselves. As an example, in the past few years, I’ve had several car accidents. If Christopher is behind the wheel and exceeding the speed limit, I feel unsafe. For months, I would “helpfully” point out the posted speed limit. Not surprisingly, this had little impact on his behavior. In fact, it frustrated him because he felt like I was trying to control him (which was true). Fear-based expectations are not immoral or sinful, but they do often obfuscate our deeper needs and incline us to control or manipulate.
If you discover that some of your expectations are indeed grounded in sin, historic wounds, or fear, admit that to your spouse and spend some time processing with an objective third party to see if you can gain more clarity about your actual needs.
7 Choices to Build Your Marriage
Once you have tested your expectations, here are a few ideas that might help you navigate your conflicts and disappointments:
1. Humbly communicate your needs and expectations without demanding anything from your spouse. Try something along these lines, “Ever since my accident, I feel scared when you drive too fast. Would you be willing to keep your speed closer to the posted limit when I’m in the car?”
2. Avoid moralizing (attaching a moral value to your preferences and expectations). Just because your spouse does something differently than you do does not mean they’re wrong.
3. Refrain from comparison. Emulate and admire other marriages, but don’t compare.
4. Work hard not to judge your spouse when they are unable or unwilling to meet your expectations. (And when you do judge them, confess and repent. Failing to do so may create a fertile environment for bitterness and resentment.)
5. Consider if some of the needs that are not specific to marriage could be met through friendships. For example, if you want to pray more often than your spouse does, initiate regular prayer with a same-gendered friend.
6. As my friend Evan told me, “Give up your need to be right and instead, work to make the relationship right.”
7. Ask God to help you grow and change rather than focusing on how your spouse needs to change.
Learning how to love your spouse well despite the inevitable disappointments and conflicts over expectations might be one of the most challenging aspects of having a successful marriage. But as Christopher and I will attest, it’s totally worth the work. As you grow increasingly able to love, you and your marriage will become more beautiful with each passing year.
Dorothy Littell Greco’s first book, Making Marriage Beautiful, will be published by David C Cook in January, 2017.