Managing What You Expect from Your Husband or Wife
I recently read an anecdote in hedonic adaptation researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky's latest book. She had talked to a couple in an arranged marriage and asked how they had managed to stay happily married for so long. Both said they entered the marriage with no expectations at all. Everything good or even okay was a pleasant surprise. She praised them but could not imagine letting go of her expectations.
I can. Not perfectly, of course. They creep up on me. When I recognize them, though, I send them packing. Expectations robbed me of a lot of love in the two years right before my first husband unexpectedly died. I was 34. He was 35. We were in our 14th year of marriage. If I were to look back farther, I expect I missed out on much more than I am now so keenly aware of. My frustrated expectations made a real mess of things in those awful last two years, after our cross-country move to our new jobs and our son's new elementary school and before his death. And I could not see this until that first morning I woke up as a single mom and widow.
Here is what I know. It is reasonable to expect your husband to take out the trash, initiate sex, hold a job non-stop until he's 66, kiss you instead of grumbling as he arrives home, buy a non-housework-related gift on your birthday, go to counseling with you, take you dancing, bring home flowers, wash dishes if you cook or cook if you vacuum, show up at your child's rugby games, compliment your twenty-pound weight loss, repair the hole your doorknob put in the wall, or put on a clean shirt and button it right when company's coming. We have all seen a friend's husband or a television character or dad do these things.
But if you expect one husband to do ALL of these, you're in way over your head. You're putting all the good traits of all the men you know on one score card. Most men would get a failing grade. And if you expect any particular one of them, there is a very good chance it has the same effect on him as giving him the entire list to perform.
Male, female, same-sex or opposite-sex, we are all tempted to believe whatever it is that we expect is reasonable to expect of the one and only entirely unique person we married.
As I have heard they say in many AA meetings, every expectation is indeed a premeditated resentment. We try to define the person we marry and then we get angry at them, not ourselves, when we get it wrong. We cannot be loving while we are being angry or resentful. And we cannot feel love then, either.
Even if our expectation turns out to be correct for the very man or woman we married, we still lose something. We lose the opportunity to be delighted or at least pleasantly surprised. And then we do not recognize it as loving, and we are not inspired to return the love.
Even unexpected delights or help or kind words eventually lose their ability to please, once we grow used to them. When we get things we expect, they have already lost it. We are not pleased by what we expect and receive. And when we don't get what we expect, our resentment gets in the way of noticing or appreciating the unexpected ones. It also stops us from being the one offering the unexpected boost to our mate.
Many fear that without their expectations, marriage would become awful to live with. The way I see it, our expectations are what create most of the unbearable marriages.
Your marriage is not going to go the way you expect.
When you stand there tapping your foot, waiting for, demanding what you expect, you don't prevent it from being worse. You prevent it from being better.
I am definitely not saying you ought to let another human being walk all over you. But not doing for you the things you would need to do for yourself if you were not married is not walking all over you.
If you have the work you would have on your own and a great sex life, you are well ahead of most of your single friends. If you have the responsibilities you would have on your own plus a shoulder to cry on and someone to cheer your victories, that's actually pretty terrific. If you have to work AND do most of the childcare, like a single parent, but you notice you also have the home and vacations and extra safety afforded by having two incomes, in-laws who treat you like family, and someone else to do the taxes, you have a lot to celebrate.
When you stop expecting all the rest, continue to expect one thing: Expect Love. If you are not shown love in any way, or if you or your children are not safe around your spouse, your marriage is dead. But I think you will find it is much more alive than you thought when you stop trying to demand just a few of the millions of ways a person can love you.
If you have trouble noticing the love because you want more, try living today as if your husband or wife died in a bus accident four weeks ago today. No one is still comforting you or bringing you food or taking care of your pets or kids or lawn. You are on your own now. Do without the other income, maybe even shop for a house or apartment you can afford. Do without the other parent to talk over problems with. Do without his or her share of the household chores -- give your spouse the day off. Take notes on everything you must do and the choices you must make when you cannot do it all. On another page, take note of every kindness your spouse shows you throughout the day.
This is how you manage your expectations. This is how you keep resentment out of your marriage. This is how you let in the delightful surprises that keep your marriage from going stale. This is how you get to be one of those people who is still amazed by and in love with the man or woman they chose to marry.
Expect Love. Throw away your horribly short-sighted score card and just enjoy the surprises.