Marriage & The Problem Of Expectations

Look at that picture. It’s my husband Jon and I on our wedding day.

I was 19. Jon, my husband of both Marriage 1.0 and the new, improved Marriage 2.0, was 20.

Look how hopefully, cluelessly young we were! Don’t you just want to give us a hug and tell us everything will be OK–but we better hitch up our pants and get ready to shovel some crap first?

I’ve shared before that Jon and I separated (and eventually divorced) when our second child was still a baby, and reconciled a couple years later. And yes, our youth probably played a role in the split. But I think that being so young helped us in some ways, too: we faced the world with enthusiasm and confidence, we grew into parenthood and adulthood together, before we’d had time to get too set in our ways as singles. We had hard, wolf-at-the-door times, but a lot of fun, hilarious times, too. We were best friends, muddling our way through and laughing most of the way. And we were pretty happy, despite some setbacks, until we’d been together long enough for the resentments to pile up.

Most people think of big things, like adultery and addiction, when they think of marriage deal-breakers. But then how come so many nice, reasonable, non-cheating and non-abusing people end up splitting up?

I believe it’s due to expectations: mostly the small, everyday ones, that go unmet. They’re insidious. They quietly wear away at your marriage day after day, week after week, not calling a lot of attention to themselves, just piling up until the foundation is buckling.

After all, my expectations in Marriage 1.0 seemed so small, so reasonable. I expected a few more dollars in the savings account, maybe another fifty on the paycheck. I expected Jon to provide so I could stay home. I expected him to spend his evenings pitching in around the house so that the weight of taking care of the kids and the home wouldn’t seem so overwhelming. I expected him to make plans on the weekend, I expected him to want to do the same things as me. I expected him to be my social life, to make me happy, even though I myself wasn’t sure how he was supposed to go about it.

It’s not like I woke up every day and thought, “Well, Jon better work his butt off all day to make enough money to please me, and then come home and take care of the baby all evening, and then entertain me all weekend!” But when I couldn’t afford something I really wanted, and then another evening went by and the dishes piled up in the sink without him even glancing over, and another Friday evening went by without anything to do, I felt little stings of having been let down. My unvoiced, even unformed expectation had not been met. Eventually the disappointments stacked high, moldering and mildewing into martyrdom and resentment until our marriage was crumbling under the weight of hundreds of wet towels left lying on the bathroom floor.

Don’t get me wrong: Jon wasn’t blameless in any of our Marriage 1.0 problems. I was justified in a lot of my resentments and disappointments. But ultimately, the bones of a good marriage–mutual affection, attraction, strong friendship, similar goals–were there between us. I’d just let the little things pile up so high and use up so much of my energy that when the time came for us to deal with big things, I didn’t have any reserves left.

We can’t completely rid ourselves of expectations–after all, I really do deserve to expect some things, like love and respect. But as humans, we will all disappoint one another. Being understandably disappointed is fine, but it’s up to us to figure out a way to deal with those disappointments, express them if we must, ask our spouses to do better next time…and then forgive, forget, and let them go.

Otherwise those everyday disappointments turn into resentment, and we lose the ability to discern between the small and the big stuff, and the energy to deal with big things that we would otherwise be able to work through.

After all, what’s really important? Is it the dishes? The right holiday gift? The credit card balance? The way he holds his fork?

How about this: my husband adores me, is my best friend, loves our kids, thinks about us constantly, and would gladly walk over hot coals to help us if he could.

And really, that’s enough for me…even if, on his way through those coals, he walked right past the pants he’d left crumpled on the floor.

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