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Marriage and the problem of expectations

by Meagan Francis on February 16, 2011

Marriage 1.0, circa 1997. Weren't we adorable?

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.

Are you visiting my blog for the first time? So glad to have  you here! Take a minute to check out my About page, read some of my favorite posts, and if you like, subscribe via email or RSS feed. And check out yesterday’s interview with Alisa Bowman, plus a giveaway of her book “Project: Happily Ever After.”

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

angie February 16, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Hear, hear, Meagan! I think many wives lose sight of the fact that our husbands have laid down their lives for us. We are responsible for some of the life that we’re to live together.

You two were absolutely adorable, btw.

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arishma June 14, 2012 at 12:30 am

i neva know wat is goin on in my husbands mind but his love for me is the worlds best strenght,,,, when they do things for us they realy mean it and when love us they make us happiest.. they do so much for us think about us our future and security words are less but emotions are true

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Sean February 16, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Meagan,
This is so true. My husband and I got married at 22 and he turns 37 today. A lot of time has passed and I do see that the root of most of our issues are expectations. He’s my best friend and he loves me and our daughter more than life. That truly should be enough. Great post!

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RookieMom Whitney February 16, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Meagan, it brought tears to my eyes to hear how you summed up Jon. I hope my husband feels the same way about me, because I’m probably the one who left my pajama pants on the bathroom floor.

I never thought of myself as a young bride, because we didn’t actually marry until we were 28, but we moved in at 23, and I always believed benefited from the fact that we were not set in our ways. We didn’t have anything materially, and we had little expectations for what we would have.

My husband used to have a whole theory of relationships that was based on the concept of expectations, ranging from acquaintances who don’t expect even a happy birthday from each other to life partners who expect each other to relocate for the other one’s career. In this model, every problem in a relationship can be traced back to mismatched expectations. (ie, If I am mad at you for not sending me a birthday card/email and you didn’t know we were at that level of commitment to each other. Or, single girl is mad at boyfriend for not making weekend plans that include her and he didn’t know he was responsible for her that way.)

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Becky February 16, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Oh, look! So young and cute. :) With age comes wisdom, but it’s not always easy.

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Jessica R. February 16, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I always say: No assumed expectations ever. No one is a mind reader and if we don’t verbalize our expectations (especially to men who speak a different language) they’ll never be met.

I’m so glad those adorable kids figured it out in the end. ;-)

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Beth/Mom2TwoVikings February 16, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Preach it, sister! DaHubby proposed 5 weeks after we met and we were married less than a year later. We had baggage TO SPARE! LOL

While I’m Wife 2.2 (2nd wife, 2 kids LOL), the things DaHubby learned with Wife 1.0 were actually invaluable at making what we have work that much better. Our initial rules were “no emotional BS,” “always tell the truth,” and the old adage “never go to bed angry”…and I can tell you that in our first year there were several vvveeerrryyy long nights. LOL

Learning how the other one learns, thinks, and communicates should be the only goal for the first five years of marriage – after that, 90% of it is relatively easy! LOL

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Sherry Carr-Smith February 16, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Lovely post. I laughed when I saw your picture on Twitter the other day, it is so very much like the one of my first husband and me. We were such babies, and we didn’t know how to talk about our needs and expectations. In addition to other, very real and very big reasons, we spent a lot of the 14 years we were together very unhappy. We loved each other, but we weren’t always good to each other.

When my 2nd husband started talking about our potential life together, he thought I was a little crazy in some of the conversations I insisted we have before we committed. Who would do laundry? How would we divide chores? What did he expect in the way of housekeeping? How often did he envision we’d have sex? Did he think a church life was important? Would he understand my anxiety over clutter?

So many things can derail an otherwise great relationship and I was determined not to repeat the same mistakes I made in my first marriage. My poor husband didn’t know what hit him (he’d never been married and had only had college roommates). I even asked my friends what they would have asked their spouses if they could have the conversation now.

All that to say, I agree :)

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Catherine February 16, 2011 at 8:58 pm

This is fantastic, Meagan. Walking past the pants as he’s walking across coals – YES. Thank you. :)

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Amber February 16, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I admit it, I am a grudge-holder.

All the same, I have been in the same relationship for just about 20 years, without any break-ups. I started dating my now-husband a few days before my 15th birthday, and we’ve been together ever since.

I honestly don’t know why my high school relationship has survived and others haven’t. I’m not sure my expectations are lower. I’m still sort of mad at my Jon for this thing he did in 1993.

I really think that a big part of my reasonably successful and happy marriage has to do with the fact that my husband doesn’t play along with my pettiness. He’s really a far bigger person than I am, even if he did make a totally jerky move in 1993. Maybe you only need one person who’s good at letting things go? I’m not sure. The fact that he has that ability does help, I will say that much.

But I think that, also, I reached a point when I was about 21 where I knew that I had to commit. I had to decide if I was in it forever or not. Before that time, it could have gone either way. After that time, I felt our relationship was much stronger. When no one was looking for a reason to get out, it simplified things a lot. Even if I’m not so great at letting go, I know that it’s not the most important thing. A healthy relationship is.

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Nadia @ Red White and GREEN Mom February 16, 2011 at 10:17 pm

“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.” —

Love that! Thank you for keeping it real. Sometimes we (I) need to be reminded of the important stuff… the dishes can wait, the laundry too, but communicating with your partner cannot. I made the mistake of expecting him to ‘read my mind’, only I didn’t understand that’s what I was doing. I had a wake up call and now whenever I feel frustrated, I stop and consider if it’s even worth it – usually, it isn’t.

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L. February 17, 2011 at 6:10 am

For me, letting go of my expectations is pretty easy. The hard part is when my husband has expectations that he won’t let go of. I can only control myself, but I also can’t change to conform to his expectations.

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Patty February 17, 2011 at 9:28 am

In the 25 + years that my hubby and I have been married we have gone through the hell that exceptions can create. It wasn’t until we both realized that the only exception that matters was the one that lead us to always strive toward seeking the positive and dealing with each other positively, that our marriage soared.

Marriage is a learning experience. You have to “learn” each other’s communication style to communicate effectively, you have to learn how both of you resolve conflict, think through problems, see the world; and exceptions come in the way of that because it blinds us to how each of us truly is.

As young married people my hubby and I just assumed that our marriage would just “work”. We never thought of how to make it work. We just stumbled through. Marriage doesn’t come with a guide book, you have to create that book for yourself and your marriage. For my hubby he had to learn that I don’t deal well with unexpected news, I need to know if its good or bad and have time to prepare myself so I don’t just react, but can be proactive. For me I had to understand that his logic doesn’t “show me up” but is truly an excellent way to deal with problems.

Marriage is a wonderful way of creating the life you want and the world you wish to create. When you take the time to truly understand each other, look beyond the childish romantic exceptions you can build a marriage, a family, of great purpose and success. A strong marriage will stand every storm.

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ginabad February 17, 2011 at 9:37 am

For me, expectations are still hard to let go…and we were well into adulthood and together for 6 years before marrying, and now another 11 years have gone by since then. It’s been very difficult…we’ve had every challenge I can think of: layoffs, debt, serious illness, disabled kids, on and on.

What I’ve tried to do is be the solution as much as I can. Sure I have off days, difficult days and sick days, but if I have enough presence of mind to let a thing slide, I do. Pet peeves are almost a thing of the past with me. When I need more help, I try to see things from his POV. I’ve learned that the more I do this, the more he actually begins to see things from my perspective. In fact, it’s the only method I’ve used to get him to see my POV that actually works and does not spiral into argument. This just works for me.

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Candace Walsh February 17, 2011 at 11:39 am

My gosh, such a good post. Thank you, I needed to hear it this week! I shared it on Mothering’s facebook page.

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Erin Cyr February 17, 2011 at 11:45 am

Thank you for sharing this. I really needed to remember what my husband does for us. You’re a wonderful writer!

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Karen February 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Nicely written! I’ve thought the same!

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kateo February 17, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Thank you for this post. A great reminder for all of us!

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AAF February 17, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Alright, first off, I’m going to say I completely agree with this and the post you linked to discussing more deeply how to have a better marriage. I agree that we need to ask for what we need. I agree that we need to let go of resentment. I agree that we need to move forward, not sit stuck in the past. I agree that we need to see issues and arguments for what they really are and choose how much they matter, generally letting them go. I agree with ALL that good stuff, I really do. I just don’t really understand how to actually put it into action.

When I ask for what I need, my husband still often doesn’t do it or he just brings up some need he has (that he hadn’t mentioned until I mentioned my need) as a way to ‘trump’ me, it would seem. So then I validate what he said and address his need, offering an immediate and/or long term solution but it almost seems like he resents me for validating him and addressing the problem, finding a solution. He’ll just break down my suggestions for solving his problem/need (all the while my need is being ignored, now, too). He’ll refuse to suggest what he thinks might help his need be met and imply that there is no solution. I sometimes wonder if he really just brings up some ‘need’ he has in order to distract from mine so he won’t have to put effort into fulfilling my request.

Then there’s good old resentment. We have a lot of it piled up and it’s not from isolated incidents but from repetitive behaviour on my husband’s part (like he had a drinking problem and blew tons of money and did all sorts of hurtful things and kept saying he was quitting and then drinking behind my back and lying, doing more very hurtful things, stealing more money, etc. etc. etc. and has emotional issues and has now spent the past 18 months half quitting smoking off and on and lying about it back and forth, being constantly in a bad mood because he’s sneaking cigarettes here and there and keeps putting himself in a state of withdrawal when he can’t sneak off for one and lying more, etc.) He always says hurtful things when he’s angry – like deliberately cruel personal insults, specifically things he KNOWS are especially hurtful to me. Once we fix problems, he inevitably apologises but I have trouble letting go of the hurt, especially when it’s been a personal insult.

I could go on and on but I’ll stop. I guess what I’d like to know is does anyone have any practical suggestions for HOW to let go of hurt? HOW to let go of anger, HOW to let go of the past, especially when these things seem to be cyclical/repetitive/common themes/etc? I sometimes feel like I’m just as much a part of the repetition because I’m not letting go but I don’t know how to. I can tell myself I have to but I can’t seem to actually DO it. No matter what I say to myself, it’s all still rattling around up there…

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nin January 14, 2012 at 7:39 pm

I dont have any answeres, just my toughts – it seems like alot of it is him. and at times u may blame yourself and think its your fault for the way hes acting but really in the heart of it, there are alot of things hes still dealing with it sounds like, that have not yet gone out of his sytem and as long as he is still contaminated and prideful not much will change and be better. He needs to start admitting and adressing his problems, needsm and concerns before he can change. We as humans do the same things over and over and expect different results. like; always running back to drinking and expecting our problems to go away!? but they dont and they wont, we have to get to the core, to the bottom of the existance of the problem. Theres always a reason, always a start, a core to things , and if we want it bad enought then we will do something about it. Its a long process and alot of work but totally worth it in the long run or things just will get worst and nothing will ever get solved and more resentment pilled up etc.

wishing u a better path.

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Leandra February 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Well said! Perfect timing for me as well! Let’s not sweat the small stuff. I love this!!

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Leah February 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I’m finding that a lot of things that can screw up marriage can also stem from mild-to-moderate depression. I’m finding a lot of good help in a book called “feeling good” by David Burns, MD. I am not usually one to be all “hey just check out this self-help book,” but this one is used as a textbook in psychology grad schools and has actual data supporting the method as a beneficial one. I am surprised by how much I like it even though I was skeptical and it’s a tad cheesy sometimes.

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Jennifer Brade February 18, 2011 at 9:11 am

Thank you for reminding me. i tend to forget to let it go. :)

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Don April 19, 2011 at 4:43 am

Megan:

Unclear expecations are the source of most marriage problems as you said:”I believe it’s due to expectations: mostly the small, everyday ones, that go unmet. They’re insidious”
One way around it is to set clear boundaries for yourself and taking the time to identify and communicate your needs to your partner.
Most partners are willing to meet them if they are aware of them.

Don
Don’s fix problems in marriage blog

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Jacqueline October 23, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I found this blog out of sheer desperation to keep from walking out tonight and leaving my husband. I am so tired of him being gone all the time in the because of work, work, work. He is self employed and works at an amusement park in the evenings. We have five kids. I actually have seven but the older two live with their dad. They are all my bio children. This is my second marriage. I was married for 15 yrs to an abusive jerk, but he was orderly, cars always worked, appliances ran, yard work kept up. He did do that part. I remarried a sweet man who is handicapped at anything mechanical, is always fixing someone elses house, while I have the same nonworking microwave for four years, and now a broken washer. I have donated 2 cars to charity he let rot. But he is sweet and nondemanding. Well my gripe is he is gone all the time working. Meanwhile I am left with a 12 yrs old, 8 year old, 5 year old, 3 year old and demanding one year old. I used to be so patient. Now I feel like an overworked, underpaid, taken for granted nanny. There is no romance, no fun, nothing to look forward to. I demanded he take 2 days off out of seven. He has honored it ONCE in 7 wks. I feel he works to stay away from the chaos. He swears its to make money to pay the bills. I have been waiting for seven years for him to make time for me. I am falling out of love with him and this makes me very sad. This blog is right on. I am tired of being disappointed. We always put everything off til another day. Birthdays, anniversaries, even thanksgiving so he can work. I am sick of it. And they are never celebrated. I have turned from a loving christian wife and mother to a mean cursing one. What do I do? I am so lonely. What is he guilty of? Working. I have little expectations that are never met. Like putting christmas stuff in the attic, putting molding on the walls, finishing projects. Of course the projects never get done because when he does have four hours I am like a starved maniac for relief and hand him the baby and go to bed. Yes I am depressed and yes I have tried medication and quit. It doesn’t help when its your environment. I don’t know where to start. I want to be in love again. I want to feel like he wants to be home. I just don’t believe him. And on the rare occasions he is, he wants to just shut down and chill. We have no family to help. A counselor told me to love him like Jesus and let God do the rest. I did that for 15 yrs in an abusive marriage and it got me no where. Now I just put up for weeks on end then explode. Lucky for me he doesn’t explode back. I feel like a selfish ingrate, but I am so overwhelmed and lonely. I guess I feel like he keeps himself from me, and he is my only reprieve. He used to be my joy and me his. We have had 3 babies of our own in six years. Anybody have any advice?

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Laura Gift January 7, 2013 at 11:03 am

We’ve been married almost 37 years now, and we still expect a lot from each other. The key is in the fact that we now know how to handle each other’s expectations. If my husband expects to come home to a big lunch on a day when I’m not feeling well, he has learned to accept the grilled cheese sandwich I actually give him with a smile. If I expect him to come home from work and spend time with me and he takes a nap instead, I realize that he’s really tired and needs the rest more than I need the attention.

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anabel August 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm

i want to share a testimony of my life to every one. i was married to my husband Williams, i love him so much we have been married for 5 years now with two kids. when he went for a vacation to France he meant a lady called Marys, he told me that he is no longer interested in the marriage any more. i was so confuse and seeking for help, i don’t know what to do until I met my friend miss Lina and told her about my problem. she told me not to worry about it that she had a similar problem before and introduce me to a man called prophetekpen who cast a spell on her ex and bring him back to her after 2days. Miss Lina ask me to contact the prophet. I contacted him to help me bring back my husband and he ask me not to worry about it that the gods of his fore-fathers will fight for me. He told me by two days he will re-unite me and my husband together. After two day my husband called and told me he is coming back to sought out things with me, I was surprise and very happy to see him coming back to me, I really appreciate and thank prophetekpen for bring my husband back to me, if you also having the same problem as i do before you can contact him through his Via email Address : prophetekpen@gmail.com

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