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.

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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  • Hi Patty
    I wonderful post! Got any helpful hints about what to do when the partner has the expectations, not you?
    I know one: Don’t be defensive! However, the impulse often is to defend, probably because we feel bad about being less than perfect ourselves. Defending just leads to arguing and the rest is downhill. I find it works a lot better to say “Yeah, I’m not so good at that.” Or “Let’s brainstorm another solution.” That usually avoids any potential argument.

  • That is exactly what I would do, Cindy — find a Third Alternative solution that helps meet the need behind the expectation of the one spouse without putting an unwanted burden on the other.
    Example: Spouse A desperately wants to see Paris and expects to take all trips as a couple, but spouse B doesn’t feel safe flying and hasn’t the free time for a trans-Atlantic voyage.
    Spouse B can join in the trip planning and make arrangements to stay in touch by Skype video during Spouse A’s trip. Or Spouse B might suggest which of Spouse A’s friends would be a good travel companion or offer to pay for a companion who could not afford to make the trip but would help savor every minute of it. Or Spouse B might suggest a trip by car to New Orleans or Quebec where they will both practice their French and eat only in romantic French restaurants.
    You are spot on about defensiveness, too. It is one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, according to research psychologist John Gottman, a strong predictor of divorce.

  • This looks perfectly reasonable on paper….but in the middle of trying to figure out dinner, let the dogs out and make sure lunch kits came home seeing my husband checking his FB makes me want to either cry or kill him.
    We have been married for almost 15 years, how can he not know how much needs to be done after I pick the kids up from daycare?
    How can he not know the giant list of things that I will be doing until 9 tonight?

  • Ah, you sound like me in the last two years of my first marriage. (See for the details.)
    When we are overworked and overwhelmed, it really looks like the only solution is for our spouse to pick up more of the load. It’s only when they are gone that it becomes clear we need to drop some of the load instead. And it is only after dropping some of it that we see the grave harm done by our resentment over the lack of help with the list we wrote and tried so valiantly to finish.
    Pick up some fast food and paper plates on your way home, plop yourself down, ignore the dogs, check your Facebook, kiss your husband, tell him cheerfully about the best thing that happened to you that day, and ask about his day. What he’s doing may turn out to be healthier for both of you. If there are tasks that must be done for the children, over dinner tell him, “I have no time tonight for [list one or two of them]. Can you handle them?”
    He might say yes or he might say no. But the truth is, if you let this resentment keep building, someday soon, it is likely you’ll be doing all this on your own in a smaller place with less money and sending the kids off to whatever he says yes or no to on his custody nights.
    The best thing you can do for your kids is to love their father and show them how much you respect him and all he does for them, even though it is not what you would have him do for them. It’s more important to their wellbeing than whether their lunch is in a lunch kit or plastic bag, more important than whether their hair is clean or their beds are made, more important even than whether every meal is a healthy one.
    And this has nothing to do with your being a woman. It’s just as true for two men raising kids together. It’s darned difficult to see while you’re standing in the kitchen juggling chainsaws and bowling balls, and I never saw it then. But the day after my first husband dropped dead, it was really, really obvious he had not caused my problems (or done as much harm to our relationship as I had) through his reluctance to take on my nightly to-do list.
    Fix the list, and you will fix your marriage.

  • Love this post Patty! I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and it really has made a tremendous impact on my marriage. I’m a man who finds himself working full-time and doing most of the childcare. I was starting to feel like a single parent and resentful but then I realized that I should just appreciate what my brings and not concentrate on what she’s not bringing because she’s a wonderful woman. Since then, I’ve been a happier person.

  • Ive been so stressed out trying to work 30 plus hours a week and dance volleyball cleaning laundry dinner lunches animals taxi cab driver and the list Gos on .i want to let the load off of my hubby’s 50 to 60 hour a week job . I have lost that loving feeling . I really love my hubby it’s just I kinda have resentments , but listening to you I’m going to lessen my load and delegate . If it doesn’t get done than I’m sure the house won’t crumble . In the mean time I’m going to fall back in love withy husband . I really don’t know what I would do without him . I would be lost !!! So all this other stuff is nothing compared to a loss of your best friend . Buy the way I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband . Thank you for the insperational words .

  • This is very insightful. Thank you for posting. I am really struggling with why to stay married. I only see my husband about 7 days of the month. 17 days each month he works on a boat and doesn’t come home, and when he’s off, he hunts or goes to a different state to hang with his friends. We have separate finances, I pay for 100% of the house, utilities, food, all household goods and he pays for his truck and his recreation (most the time). He hates talking on the phone, so the bulk of our communication is via text message. He told me a year ago he would make more time for us, but he doesn’t see a problem with the arrangement now. Am I wrong for expecting him to share some of the same priorities as I? For instance, house needs some repairs, I can’t afford it on my own right now, but he doesn’t want to help fund it either.. he wants to lift his truck 3 more inches and put bigger tires on it. Am I just supposed to be grateful he loves me and not expect anything from him? If so, why be married?

  • Sounds very painful, Dawn. I don’t know if your husband is worth staying married to or not, and you don’t mention whether you are bound to him for years to come by shared children.
    But I will point out that you’re confusing marriage problems and personal life problems. And it will get easier to fix the former if you first fix the latter.
    Needing repairs on the house you pay for has nothing to do with your marriage. You’ll need to figure this one out whether he’s in your life or not. If you divorce, you’ll need to earn more money or move to a more affordable home or trade services with a friend or relative who’s good at home repair.
    Your husband does not have a problem of needing repairs on the house. If you two split, he’ll have much bigger problem, having no place to sleep or eat two weeks of every month, but he won’t need to fix this house.
    So, while it would sure be nice if he kicked in for repairs, divorce doesn’t fix these problems for you. And any resentment you carry right now about his way of loving you is creating a marriage problem for you. Men need to feel their spouses respect them. It’s in their DNA. You’ll be far more attractive — and he’ll feel far more loved — without your resentment.
    And you’ll feel far more loved if he gives more of his non-work time to you. You don’t need to wait for him to fix this problem. You need a Third Alternative, a solution that makes him want to spend more time with you without making you any less happy than you are now.
    If you can do so — and if you can make sure you’re truly happy with the arrangement, too — consider moving to the same state as the friends he wants in his life. Or consider making your home more inviting to them. Or consider moving somewhere that lets him hunt and still be home for dinner.
    If you can’t make moving work for you, how about making his time at home more inviting, with family gatherings or shared hobbies, or with a change in your work schedule to free you up for more time together on the days when he’s with you?
    I can almost hear you protesting that you have no control over your work schedule. I thought so, too, until my husband died and I was forced to tell my boss things had to change or I would have to change jobs. It was scary as anything, but I had no choice. And when it worked, and I began to see how different our lives would have been if I did it sooner, I kicked myself for not even thinking of it as an option while I still had him in my life.
    Another marriage problem is your difference of opinion on how to communicate while he’s on the boat. It seems possible he would prefer text messages because he can’t be overheard. But a Third Alternative might allow you to record a message for him to listen to when he’s able to. Tell him about what’s going on at home, how you’re thinking of him, what you’re grateful for. Save any problems you two need to solve together until he’s home, if at all possible — I’ve heard from a lot of people with 24/7 jobs away from home how awful it makes them feel to think about a problem they can’t do anything about while they’re working or to think they are letting their loved ones down by being away. And set up a designated time every day or every odd day for this, so he knows it’s okay not to answer then. He can reply by text when he’s able to listen in private.
    And eventually, you might try involving him in coming up with Third Alternatives for funding a house and diet you no longer can afford because you’re spending more money on your own recreation. But save that one until you both feel closer and your resentment’s gone, so he can join in and feel like a hero instead of a guy having a fight with his wife. It’s amazing what a difference that makes.

  • My husband of 2 years has been recently telling me with a ton of anger in his voice that I should stop expecting anything from him. in fact, I asked him to do something that I could have done myself and he immediately said no. I asked him to try very nicely. He attempted to give it a try but with anger and hesitation. Obviously it didn’t work. I asked him to try again after I made an adjustment- he again yelled at me with an anger and told me he can’t do it. I at that point get upset with him and I say something like your an a$$. He starts yelling at me that I’m selfish, that I shouldn’t expect anything from him. That I need to shut my mouth and go to sleep. That I completely don’t understand his frustration. Etc. I’m confused – does this mean he just wants to be married but have two separate living matters? Am I not suppose to ask him for anything? Because every time I ask him for something, he has that anger in his voice and he’ll make a smart comment.
    We have been together for 10 years … 2 years ago we got married. He works nights and I run a business which he helps me with. He ultimately does clean the house, do laundry, wash dishes sometimes and take out the garbage. We also barely see each other and he doesn’t like to go out much because of money. Therefore when we do see each other- we spend time in home. Him on his couch and me on my couch watching soap re-runs. When I tell him lets go out- he’ll tell me no. I’ve asked him to really focus on us going out of the house because its taking a toll on my well being… Today was the first day in months that we had date night. Maybe even a year!! With regards to intimate relations, well I am not happy. I keep telling him forplay outside of the bedroom keeps the spark going …. He disregards that.. And I have been saying no to sex the last few times. Im 27 and he is 28. We don’t have children yet but I do want a family. I just want to get some advice on how to handle things. I know I have a very sharp tongue and usually say what’s on my mind- well not everyone can handle that.
    Thanks in advance.

  • No, not everyone can handle a sharp tongue, Eva. And research suggests that even if you married someone who can, you need 5 times as many positive interactions as negative ones to keep the marriage happy. In other words, it’s not how often you say something critical or nasty that matters — it’s the ratio. The more angry or critical words, the greater the number of positive interactions needed to keep the marriage healthy.
    It can be very hard to squeeze in a lot of positive moments when you work different shifts and are doing something on your sofa in your spare time that he’s highly unlikely to want to join you in.
    There are many things he could do to improve this marriage for you. But he’s not reading this blog. You are. So I will list things YOU can do to improve this marriage for YOU.
    It sounds like you can expect quite a lot from him: an income from a challenging job (anything on the night shift is challenging), help with your business, trash removal, laundry, house cleaning, and some dish washing. If he’s frustrated when you ask for more, it’s very likely he’s concluded nothing will ever be enough, because you show no gratitude for these things. People who show their gratitude and respect for what their spouse contributes tend to get more than those who ask for more or complain of unfairness.
    Respect is foreplay for men. Your husband may well think you can do without foreplay if he must. If you are going to ask your man to do things for you, make them things he does well, things that use his character strengths, not things you both know you could do and he believes he cannot do well.
    If you would like him to do more with you at home, when he’s doing something on his own couch, go do something you enjoy and he might want to join in. You’ll probably need to repeat it for a while, maybe even a couple of weeks. But if he likes playing cards, and you are playing solitaire (with real cards), or if he likes taking pictures and you’re arranging still life photos on the dining room table to shoot with your camera, or he enjoys jigsaw puzzles and you are assembling one, he just might abandon his couch and join you.
    If you would like to go out, go out. Choose something inexpensive, and go do it. Without him. When you return from doing it, be fun to be around; this will add a lot to the allure of whatever you chose. Then do it again a week or two weeks later. He may join you, because you’ve eliminated the effort of choosing somewhere to go, the risk of making a bad choice, and the question of whether you’ll be fun to be around (because for most men, a happy wife is a huge morale booster). Say, “I’m going to _______. Want to join me?” And nothing more before you head out the door. Unless you’re watching Chippendales dancers or getting your nails done, it’s likely he will eventually want to join you.
    But even if he never joins you, your misery at never going out will be greatly reduced, giving you a much better chance at those “micro-moments of positivity” that make both of you feel in love again.

  • I have a problem. I love my husband and have not intentions of divorcing but any tim g I try to discuss practically anything with I’m that’s requires his participation in the conversation in less tha 4 min he is freaking out and telling me I need to leave and he just shuts down. I either keep trying with him wich makes hi worse and me cry which then makes him meaner, OR I leave and give him time to cool off and I come back and its like nothing has happened hes just poutier and slightly anry, never ever an apology or even acknoweledgement of the argument or that he was mean or anything, to the point I think I want my own room so I can just not deal with him half of the 4 hrs a day I see him. any advice?

  • Withdrawal into your own room may cut down on the meanness, but it will wreck your marriage, Chloe. And continuing a conversation with anyone after they hit that emotional flooding stage (which men hit much faster than women, for biological reasons) is a pointless and harmful move that quite often proceeds to divorce.
    A few questions, so I can understand and help:
    – Do the two of you have pleasant discussions about other topics, or are they all like this?
    – Are the conversations that turn out like this about changes you want him to make in himself or in his behavior? About decisions that affect both of you? About things that worry or frighten you?
    – What’s your husband’s most respect-worthy quality?

  • first we can and do but they have been less and less frequent since we got married (6years) even when it involves the kids (he had one which is now ours and we have one together). he thinks I should just agree with him on everything and If I have any dissenting opinion (example, I think flip flops are viable footware to wear in public, he does not, in ANY situation and is mad I let our son wear them) he shuts the discussion down, like compromise is weakness.
    second I have addressed all of those things to him at one time or another, such as his behavior: him actually WATCHING our youngest when I leave so the entire house dosent need to be literally cleaned up each and every time. decisions that affect both of us: ill want to talk about the budget, some ideas, anything he shuts it down, we don’t actually HAVE a budget and are a one income family and its madness and usually if I say something is worrying me or bothering me like a health scare or something he dosent seem to care if he even listens to what I’m saying. I feel like hes just ghosting
    I respect him for being a good father (when we met, hes much (50-60%) less active in the family now were married) and taking care of business and being a hard worker and a strong personality. I KNEW he was strong willed but I feel like this is more than that, compromise is a dirty word to him but its the definition of marriage to me, and he knew that going in and never seemed to have a problem with it, but it is becoming one more and more so, I give some on ALL the things I feel strongly about and think he should too but he just wants me to compromise myself right over to what he wants to do about whatever the issue is, his parents had a rotten marriage and I feel like ours is heading that way. hes a good man with good values but I cant seem to communicate with him in any meaningful way

  • Chloe, I’ve never understood why anyone would aim for compromise in a marriage. It’s like saying (usually to a marriage therapist), “I’m willing to suffer some pain for this marriage, but only if you make the most important person in my world suffer the same amount of pain.”
    It’s crazy.
    Save your sacrifices for when your heart is overflowing with love for your husband.
    But please let go of the notion that the two ideas you’re bumping heads over are the only ones that would satisfy you. There is almost always a Third Alternative, an option that would please you as much as letting your son wear flip flops whenever he likes and still please you as much as never letting the boy wear flip flips would please your husband.
    If you find it, you’re both happy, and you both get to feel like you did something great for your mate.
    And once you know you two can always find one, he can stop shutting down the conversation to get his way, and you can stop starting the conversations by criticizing his judgment. Men are biologically attuned to find respect to be the very foundation of any relationship (in other words, there’s a hollow shell of a marriage when the respect is gone), and criticism comes across as a lack of respect.
    Criticism and Stonewalling (shutting down the conversation) are two of the “Four Horsemen” John Gottman’s research points to as signals of a marriage headed for divorce, so you two need a new tool in a hurry.
    Here are a couple of posts I’ve written about how to find Third Alternatives:
    And here is a great story of a couple in real trouble who found a Third Alternative:
    You can find more posts by looking for the words Third Alternative in the Archives:
    I sure hope you find this tool as helpful as I have, Chloe, and I wish you both a much happier marriage.

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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