How many times have you heard the following statement from a couple whose marriage is on the rocks? “We just want different things.” We often hear people explain their relationship difficulties with this phrase. Honestly, however, this could describe every relationship, whether healthy or struggling. Individuals bring contrasting expectations to a marriage. Period. It is impossible for two people to come into a relationship with identical expectations. So many factors determine our expectations of marriage that each person has a unique conception of what marriage will be like. Relationship experts identify three main causes for unfulfilled marital expectations: conflicting expectations, unrealistic expectations, and confused expectations.
First of all, we learn about marriage from the relationships surrounding us. This begins very early in life and continues as we learn and grow toward adulthood. We look to the examples of our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, and neighbors to determine how a relationship should function. Then we unconsciously adopt the roles and behaviors we have observed. These behaviors are so ingrained in our subconscious that we often think of them as absolutes. Because every person strongly believes in his or her own unique set of expectations, marriage partners will inevitably clash when those expectations don't coincide.
Unrealistic expectations also cause problems in a marriage. We learn about marriage from very unreliable sources. We read novels or watch television and movies where romantic relationships are idealized. Fictional examples aren’t the only source of unrealistic expectations. It is common for couples to see only the best parts of the relationships around them. We see smiling family portraits or read upbeat blog entries, for example. Couples frequently learn to expect impossible things of each other and of the marriage relationship. They think that marriage will be a blissful state in which all previous problems are swallowed up in a new and better life. These kinds of expectations are impossible to fulfill.
Another cause of unfulfilled expectations is a set of confused expectations. Society and culture send many confusing and contradictory messages to couples about what roles they should adopt. Women, for example, can feel pressures to be both a career woman and a perfect mother. They might wonder what expectations are socially acceptable and be unsure whether or not it’s “okay” to sidestep these social pressures. Men likewise face contradictions from many sources about their roles and how they should behave in relationships. With all this outward confusion, partners naturally question the expectations they should have and how to fulfill those expectations.
The statement, “We just want different things,” does not have to mean the end of your relationship. As you can see, everybody wants different things for a variety of reasons. Begin with the following three tips to stop the conflict and find fulfillment instead.
We are often unaware of many of our own expectations. Like we mentioned before, we adopt many of our expectations unconsciously. They become a part of our personality, and we need to identify them for ourselves and for our marriage partners. It is important to discuss what your expectations are and where they come from (family, media, etc.). This may take some soul searching and perhaps some willingness to ask questions and accept the answers you receive. When you and your partner understand what each of you expects, you can begin to find ways to compromise and meet one another’s needs.
Of course, this is easier said than done. But it must be done. We can’t underscore the importance of this step. When you discuss your expectations with your spouse, prepare to compromise. Because our expectations are so much a part of us, it abandoning them can feel a bit like cutting off a limb. It will hurt. But you need to accept that your spouse simply cannot fulfill some of your expectations. You cannot fulfill some of your spouse's. Make a commitment that you will not begrudge one another those things that are impossible to do.
Together, you can decide what things you want to change. Then you can make concrete goals to help you make those changes. For example, if your wife wants you to be more understanding, make a goal to spend your first twenty or thirty minutes after work talking about the feelings and needs that you’ve both had that day. Continue making goals together and evaluating your progress in a fixed weekly meeting. In these meetings you should talk about how well you've done during the week and what you can do to improve in the following week.
Do you see a common thread through these three tips? All of these suggestions are bound up in the most important skill in maintaining a successful marriage: communication. The expectations you have about marriage manifest themselves in how you communicate with your spouse. In order to successfully understand one another's needs you must learn to speak the same language. As you improve your communication skills by listening, taking turns speaking, repeating what your spouse says in your own words, and using other positive communication skills, you will begin to understand what your spouse wants and what you can do to make him or her happy. You may be surprised, then, as your expectations become increasingly fulfilled.
Klemer, R.H. & Smith, T.M. (1975). Klemer's Marriage and Family Relationships. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.