In a comment on my last post, The Easiest Way to a Happier Marriage, Clover asked a great question:
I agree that we shouldn’t expect our partners to act exactly the way we want them to – they’re not robots. And no one really owes us anything.
But sometimes it’s really hard to maintain this mindset. With my friends and family, I care about their feelings more than my own. For example, if they don’t want to go hiking with me, that’s completely okay; I don’t want them to do anything that they’d rather not.
But with my boyfriend, I would get offended and act cold towards him. Do you have ideas on why people (myself included) have high expectations for our partners?
Early in a relationship, while we’re still sizing each other up, it makes a lot of sense to have high expectations. We know our needs and our desires, and we recognize when we’re with someone who will require extra effort to love. If we had any sense, we’d move on at this point.
But we’re human. At this early point, we’re usually focused more on how we’re being received than on whether this is the right person to see us through everything life will bring. We expect a hiking partner (or someone who shares kitchen chores or someone who share our level of risk tolerance or someone who gives thoughtful gifts or says I love you every day), but we tell ourselves that it’s too early to demand this. And we enjoy whatever we’re offered: a short walk in the city, a dinner out, a jacket to warm us, a candy bar, a compliment on our clothing.
It takes a while to start to see who we’re falling for. And we want to be with them, so we’re okay (for now) with no hikes, because we’re doing interesting new things. And we’re not together every day, so we can hike with friends on the other days. Or we take one hike together and jump to the conclusion that there will be more, that this isn’t just an effort to gain our approval.
If we add sex into the relationship at this point, we activate all of that biochemistry that bonds human beings to each other, at least for the moment. In choosing a sexual relationship, we choose to quiet the part of the mind that would be evaluating this possible life partner with at least as much care as a new laptop or a used car. Nature wants us to focus on the sex. It’s how we’re designed. It’s one of the reasons so many of us end up married to someone whose expectations differ from our own.
I’ve been married twice (and widowed once), so I can tell you that it’s possible to be happily married to someone with lots of the same expectations or someone with very, very different expectations. The trick is to realize that your expectations exist only in your own head. You have complete control over how you use them.
You can use them up front to help choose someone who will offer you most of what you crave. Or you can use them later to make sense of why you feel unloved. Or you can use them at any time to create a life you love without tormenting the central person in your life with a cold shoulder.
Let’s take your desire to go hiking as an example. Here’s what’s likely going on:
- You enjoy hiking, have free time today, feel in good shape today, don’t have any pressing deadlines today, and believe that spending time together is important for a couple, so hiking sounds like a good thing to do together.
- Furthermore, you believe that people who love each other should make an effort (even when the timing or the activity is not perfect) to do what the other wants to do.
- He, perhaps, doesn’t much like hiking or has something else on his must-do list today or has a chance today to do something he really loves, so hiking doesn’t sound enjoyable.
- Beyond this, he believes that good sex and good food are important for a couple. Or that they stay together by remembering to say nice things to each other. Or to kiss before leaving in the morning. Or to trust each other in everything and be trustworthy in what they do. It’s never occurred to him to even pay attention to how much spare time you spend together.
- And he just might have grown up with people who taught him that if you love someone, you let them be themselves, so he believes he’s showing you love by encouraging you to go hiking without him, even though he’d love for you to stay home and admire the work he’s doing on his model trains.
You’re both being loving. And you’re both feeling unloved. Adding a cold shoulder isn’t going to improve things, is it?
What will improve things is digging into your feelings a bit. Why are you upset that he’s not willing to go hiking or do anything else you expect he would do if he loved you the way you love him?
If it’s because you do things for him that you don’t much want to do, and you imagine that his way of showing love is the same as yours, try reframing your request for someone who doesn’t view love this way:
- “It would mean a lot to me if you’d go hiking with me today.” This clues him in that there is meaning in doing this together, just in case it has no special meaning for him, even though he loves you and wants your marriage to succeed.
If it’s because you feel rejected and hurt when he says no, try reframing your request in an open-ended way, instead of a yes/no way:
- “I would like to do something together today. What do you think of a two-hour hike?” This lets him know that together is the important part, so that he can suggest alternatives if he has a reason for not hiking today but would enjoy doing something else with you.
And if you already know he’s just not into hiking or he’s been up half the night coughing, but you really want to go hiking, try something like this to invite him to be part of it:
- “I am dying to go for a hike today, but none of my friends are, and I don’t feel safe alone on Sandy Ridge. What do you suggest?” You’re treating him like a partner, not an obstacle, and there is a good chance he’ll come up with a group hike group you could join, a hike that’s safe to do alone, or a companion you haven’t thought of. He might even suggest going with you later today or sometime tomorrow. People who love you do not enjoy disappointing you, and most of them love solving a problem that’s bothering you, because they love you.
Our expectations are really not so high. They are just different. The problem comes in how we react to our spouse or partner not meeting those expectations. How we react is rooted in our beliefs about love, beliefs that seem so normal to us that we don’t even notice we’re married to someone with very different beliefs about how to love someone.
How you word your requests can make it easier for your spouse to meet those expectations.
And, by the way, your boyfriend’s expectations are going unmet, too, even if you’re working really hard to meet the ones you understand. Be kind.