How the Good Things in Our Childhoods Mess Up Our Marriages
Jerome woke up every morning to his mother bringing him a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. He'd drink it down before getting out of bed and ready for the rest of his breakfast and the school bus. It was a nice, unhurried way to start the day. And it made a lasting memory: orange juice = love, especially when it's delivered by the woman he loved most.
Rebekkah woke up to an alarm clock and hurried down to the kitchen table to pour herself some cereal. Her mother was already at work. Her father, who worked nights, was home but usually sound asleep when Rebekkah rushed out the door to walk to school.
If you had dropped young Jerome into this household, he would have felt unloved. But Rebekkah never did, because every Saturday, her family spent the entire day together. An only child, she had her parents' undivided attention as they visited museums and beaches and parks or shopped for new school clothes.
When Rebekkah and Jerome married, she planned lots of things to do together on Saturday and looked forward to having two or three kids to join them. But Jerome often had to work on Saturday. And when he didn't, he would accept invitations from his pals to do things together, then feel utterly misunderstood by Rebekkah when she pouted over his choice.
Rebekkah did the shopping. Her family had never bought orange juice and certainly did not own a juicer to make their own, so it never occurred to her to buy oranges or orange juice. She had no idea (who would, if they did not grow up in Jerome's situation) that anyone could feel less loved without a daily dose of the orange stuff. And Jerome got up before her every day, so it never occurred to her to bring him anything in bed. But she really enjoyed the freshly brewed coffee waiting for her in the kitchen when she hurried down for breakfast before work.
Fortunately, Jerome reminisced about all that orange juice while they were visiting his mom soon after they married. And Rebekkah, ever the practical one, stopped scheduling things to do together on Saturdays and had a lot more luck with Sundays.
After their first child, another expectation from their childhoods caught up with them. Neither of them caught it. It wasn't until they finally showed up for marriage counseling after years of drifting far apart that anyone noticed what was driving a huge disagreement.
Jerome had siblings, 3 younger brothers. Unlike the rest of breakfast, that glass of orange juice every morning was one-on-one with his mother. It was followed by all the activity and cross-conversations and whining you'd expect from a family of four boys at the breakfast table with their overburdened parents.
Rebekkah could never imagine that scenario. Somewhere deep inside, she remembered the loneliness of her breakfasts alone. She never felt bad about them as a child, but they drove her to be all business and no fun. Once she had a child of her own, she wanted to give him siblings to share everything with: breakfasts, walking to school, family day on the weekends.
And that's what drove them apart. Rebekkah had no real clue why she was in such a hurry to have another child, and James had even less of a clue why he never felt it was time yet. She expected the second child to improve their son's life. He expected it to have the opposite effect. And because they didn't talk about the expectations, didn't discuss whether their separate fears and hopes were even relevant to their current circumstances, Jerome withdrew from their sex life while Rebekkah pushed for it. And Jerome withdrew from family day, while Rebekkah grew to welcome the time alone with their son, because she didn't want to be around him any more.
Unmet expectations grow resentments. And most go unmet, because we're the only one who believes everyone expects them or ought to.
Rebekkah and Jerome could have turned their unmet expectations into requests if they had noticed that they were building up resentment over unmet needs. As soon as they did this, they could have looked for Third Alternatives, starting by listing what they hoped to gain and what they feared losing. Jerome might have discovered that having no more children isn't the only way to protect their son's one-on-one time with his parents or his loving one-on-one time with Rebekkah. Rebekkah might have discovered that two more children isn't the only way to protect their son from loneliness and too early responsibilities or to protect herself from Jerome's distancing.
Morning orange juice and family day were great traditions and really unfortunate expectations. And this seemed like the time to mention them, as we emerge from the season of expectations rooted in our earliest traditions.