The question of the day in Compuserve’s Family Forum was addressed to those who have divorced. It asked whether changing expectations in your marriage led to the divorce. I want to share my reply here.
Yes, my changing expectations led to divorce, or darn close to it. When my husband died very unexpectedly just a day after I told him my long list of unmet expectations led me to believe divorce would be best, I became a widow instead. And I woke up to some very painful recognitions about expectations.

Since we both worked, I expected that my husband would do his “fair share” of the work of running our household — make the phone calls to repairmen, be here when they came, cook the dinners, remove the poison ivy from the yard, vacuum the carpets, wash the clothes, drive our son to and from school, etc., etc. Early on, he always did more than half (and claimed that I did, too). But the list grew. And grew. And he couldn’t or wouldn’t do as much as I expected. When he was gone, the list was just as long, and nothing that he used to do got done.
I expected my husband to be my companion when I wanted to do things I couldn’t do alone, like go dancing, throw a dinner party, take a trip, etc. And I added to the list every year. When he was gone, I found I still needed companions. Now I also needed them for eating dinner, talking through parenting issues, sharing the day’s news, boating, camping, and all the other things we used to do together.
I expected my husband to be brave when I was chicken: to somehow rescue us when the car’s transmission broke in 6 degree weather with an infant in the car and little gas in the tank, to kill that large ugly thing on the bedroom wall, to go out into the storm for medicine. As the folks from the Medical Examiner’s office wheeled his body out of the house, I saw I was going to need lots more courage of my own.
I expected my husband to make my life more secure. At first, that was pretty easy. He wasn’t the sort to threaten or harm me. But when other things threatened to harm me or us, he wasn’t always able to do anything about them. When he was gone, I missed the protection I’d had.
I expected my husband to do more about our financial shortfalls, since I was working more hours than he was. First, I wanted him to take on more work. Later, when the doctor suggested he go on disability to recover his strength from his latest bout of digestive disease, I wanted him to do that, thinking we’d have income plus someone at home during the day to handle things. I can’t for the life of me explain how I thought then that divorce would help with this expectation. After his death, I paid people to do my laundry, my school driving, my yardwork, my cooking, my dusting and vacuuming, my minor car maintenance, anything that they would do for less than I could earn in an hour, and I worked up to 80 hours a week with a ferocity that amazed me.
I expected more romance than he offered in our 12th and 13th years of marriage. We were both stretched thin with obligations, problems, and illnesses, so I craved it more than ever. I woke up the day after he was gone recognizing all the times he’d tried, only to be hit with my cold shoulder because of some expectation he hadn’t met. If he spent money on a gift, it had better be perfect, or it was a waste of scarce resources. If he put an arm around me or held my hand, it had better be after all the day’s chores were done, something that rarely happened. If he professed his love for me, I’d silently think, “Then why don’t you prove it with your actions?”
Now that I saw the other things I’d expected of him had all been attempts to expect less of myself than life asked of me, I felt I’d cheated him horribly. I’d promised to love him and respect him, but I’d made it conditional on doing for me all the things I refused to do for myself.
That was 20 years ago. I’m remarried now. I have one expectation: love. I see it in every chore my husband does, no matter how many I’m doing. I see it in every dollar he contributes to my well-being. I see it in every kind word. I see it in every touch. I see it in his encouragement of my plans and his delight in my successes. I see it every time he shows up at the dining room table to eat with me, even though, after years of living alone, he doesn’t often eat on my schedule. I see it in every creepy crawly thing he removes from our home. I see it in every gift, even the time he stuck a bow on the six-pack of toilet paper because he remembered it was my birthday while he was buying it. I see it in the things he does with and for my son and his family. And I see it in his choice to be faithful to me, even though it’s tempting to wonder what else is out there.
When I don’t see it, when he does something that upsets or worries me, I assume love. By this, I don’t mean I take for granted that he loves me. I just check what happened against the possibility that he does, to see if there’s an explanation I missed at first glance — like the explanation for how toilet paper with a bow on it could be a gift from the heart, an offering of my husband’s finest qualities.
Twice now, I have been blessed to have love in my life. Love includes some side benefits that lighten the load of living, but when we specify which ones with our expectations, I’ve learned we drive away the love.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Patty,
    I “stumbled” across your article today and was hit right between the eyes. I am in the process of learning to lay aside my own list of expectations for my husband of 25 years. I am also writing an article for a college class and would very much love to use your story. Part of our assignment is to do a query letter to accompany our article. It can be hypothetical or we can actually submit it. I am not sure which direction I will take yet although the magazine I have selected is Christian Women Today.
    I just wanted to thank and encourage you to continue sharing. Your story is so powerful. I also wanted you to know I am passing it on. If you have any recommendations or restrictions, I welcome them along with your comments.
    Thanks for your remarkable transparency.
    Kindest Regards!
    Melanie Flowers

  • Thank you, Melanie. Please feel free to use my story in your article and your query. If they are interested in the article, I would be delighted to conduct an interview with you by phone or email.

  • i think in different way..
    love is expections which we may not feel but it is.. than it is not love than there will be no suffer or pain.. there will be no fight or divorce..
    if i love her ofcorse i expect to get back, i expect she love me as i love.. if she dont call me one day or i dont call than we both are angry. why? this is expection. so i belive love is expection otherwise it is not love it is friendship.. bcoz friendship is free. love is not free..:-) isht

  • Thank you thank you thank you!!!! I have so many expectations and get hurt often. Today my mom told me not to expect anything and I come across this article. What a lifesaver!My husband told me he would rate our marriage a 9 out of 10…I would rate it a 4, but when I asked him what he thought I would rate it, he said 8. Funny, we are in the same relationship and have almost opposite opinions . Your article has, shown me that I’m responsible. Things are not as bad as I think…he is like your first husband…he takes care of everything we need; fixes things, is there for us, makes sure we have what we need. Thank you again…my life has changed today.

  • Wow, Suzie, what great news. I hope you will read some of the later posts in the Expect Love category for lots more ideas on how to discover how much love he has for you and how to ask for what you want without expecting it. May you have a long and happy marriage with this good man.

  • What a beautiful and eye-opening post. You are very articulate and have made my day today. I’ve been struggling with this concept of ‘expectations’ for quite some time – and your article puts things into perspective. Thank you.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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