You’ve finally reached the end of a long ten-hour day spent in a frantic state trying to fulfill your many responsibilities. The only thing that got you through the day was the knowledge that your husband would be home waiting to comfort you. When you walk through the door with your arms full of groceries, you’re ready to fall into a chair, fully expecting a sympathetic ear and maybe even a little foot rub. Your husband comes in, gives you a quick kiss and walks to the door.
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he tells you. “I’m going to go help Dave look for a new car.” As the door closes behind him, you wonder how your husband can be so insensitive to your needs. He doesn’t seem to show his love like he did when you were dating, and you question whether he even cares about your relationship anymore.
This illustration is only one example of a classic case of one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in any marriage—a case of unfulfilled marriage expectations. Even the most happily married couples report conflict resulting from mismatched expectations. People enter a marriage full of hope and idealism. They never suspect that their spouse may expect very different things from the marriage. As the honeymoon stage wears off, couples start to see all of the little differences they never noticed before. Spouses misinterpret each other and let minor misunderstandings turn into major conflicts when they haven’t learned to understand each other’s position.
One of the most significant differences between happy and discontented couples is that successful couples work to understand one another's expectations and find ways to integrate those differing expectations. You can begin on the path to understanding and integration with the following steps that will make a big difference in the happiness of your marriage.
Realizing your marriage isn’t the idealized portrait you had painted in your mind understandably creates a tremendous amount of stress. You must realize that you cannot avoid this problem, but it doesn’t mean you’re a failure or that your marriage is doomed. Some of your expectations will inevitably go unmet. Now that you have accepted this fact, acknowledging this doesn't mean your chance for happiness in your marriage is lost. It is not too late to have a happy marriage.
In your effort to keep the conflict from worsening, you may completely avoid discussing the problem. Of course, fighting won’t help. You are wise to avoid antagonism. But you can't just ignore the problem. Learn and practice the key steps for good communication. It is absolutely essential to engage in calm discussion about what you feel.
Most of us naturally assume that our way of viewing the marriage relationship is the right way. You have to recognize, however, that your spouse's viewpoint may be just as valid. Except for a situation in which you are physically or emotionally endangered, try to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Attempting to force your spouse to fulfill your expectations will only create more resentment. Don't yell, nag, pout, or punish. These things will not help your marriage.
It may seem easier to go to family members, friends or even other romantic partners to meet your expectations. But this only delays the problem and can potentially cause irreparable damage. You have to realize that your expectations will never be met unless you talk about them with your spouse and learn to make rational compromises. Running away from the relationship will only create an endless cycle where your expectations are raised and then dashed.
Every marriage faces the problem of unmet expectations. Sometimes the problem can be small. Other times it can be a major obstacle. But you can take steps to match your expectations to a happy marriage reality. Identifying your expectations and where they come from will help you work with your spouse and establish a relationship in which your realistic expectations can be fulfilled.
Klemer, R.H. & Smith, T.M. (1975). Klemer's Marriage and Family Relationships. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.