Whether you can voice them or not you entered marriage with expectations. You had a picture in your mind of what your marriage would look like. It may have reflected your parent’s marriage, or the marriages of close friends, your own hopes and dreams, or even TV and movie depictions of marriage. At some point, however, your expectations for marriage didn’t match reality. There was a gap between what you expected and the reality of your daily experience.
When my wife and I were first married our first problem related to a difference in expectations over bedtime. Her parents always went to bed at the same time, and she expected the same would be true with her husband. My parents never went to bed at the same time. Dad was an early bird and Mom was a night owl.
It was no big deal to me that my wife was going to bed 2-3 hours earlier than me while I burned the midnight oil studying for my Master’s. After a short while, my wife shared her heartache, but we couldn’t produce a satisfactory solution that accommodated my study needs and her sleep schedule. We were at an impasse until our friends offered a wonderful solution that worked for them.
What my wife wanted was the connection and cuddle time before she fell asleep. I would climb into bed enjoy a little pillow talk, cuddle for a bit, keep her warm (an important job in the Boston area) and she was asleep in no time. Then I would creep back into the kitchen and study my brains out. Years later this strategy continues to work because I am still a night owl, and she is still an early bird. It was a small issue that could have quickly escalated into a big problem.
When it comes to marriage, your mindset matters. Many of the biggest problems in marriage aren’t your partner’s fault at all. You brought them with you into the relationship. They came from vastly different backgrounds and different expectations.
You had a picture in your mind of what your marriage would look like but at some point, your expectations for marriage didn’t match reality. There was a gap between the theoretical, the imaginative, the expected, and the everyday nuts and bolts, meat and potatoes reality of your daily experience.
What were your expectations heading into marriage? Some people have extremely high expectations and are quite idealistic and others are pessimistic. It’s tough to find that healthy middle ground optimistic yet realistic. How many of you would say you were idealistic when you first got married?
You were naïve about how challenging it is to be married to another human? How many would say you were pessimistic? You have seen marriages end badly and you have some doubts and fears. How many of you would say you were realistic? You knew it wouldn’t be easy, but you were optimistic about making it work.
Every year at Christmas we watch my wife’s favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Because we watch it every year, we practically have it memorized. In one scene Joe Fox (Tom Hank) is having a conversation with his father Nelson Fox (Dabney Coleman). Both men have just ended their relationships and are once again living on their boats. Their comments capture both the pessimism and idealism many people have regarding marriage.
Nelson Fox: “I just have to meet someone new, that’s all. That’s the easy part.”
Joe Fox: “Oh right, yeah, a snap to find the one single person in the world who fills your heart with joy.”
Nelson Fox: “Well, don’t be ridiculous. Have I ever been with anyone who fit that description? Have you?”
You can hear the sarcasm dripping from Joe Fox’s (Tom Hank’s) voice. “The one single person who fills your heart with joy.” Is it even possible to find Mr. Right or Miss Right – that one solitary individual who makes your heart sing – your one true love! That’s a lot of pressure on one relationship! But isn’t everyone looking for that one right person who captivates you, makes you feel the most comfortable, and completes you?
After failing at marriage three times, the elder Mr. Fox has a more pessimistic view of marriage. He is not looking for a life partner just his next partner! “Well, don’t be ridiculous. Have I ever been with anyone who fit that description? Have you?” With 40-50% of marriages ending in divorce and an even higher percentage of second marriages ending in divorce, many folks head into marriage with a prenuptial agreement prepared as a plan B if things don’t work out.
Marriage Expectation Problem #1: I didn’t think marriage would take this much work
It’s hard to imagine marriage being hard or taking work when you are in love. Even couples who have cohabitated for years tend to view marriage as something better than their current arrangement. “Once we are married, life will be better. We will be more committed, we will trust each other more, we will work on our issues. When we are married, I am not going to put up with his stuff any longer. After the wedding, I can fix her.”
People with idealistic expectations who view their relationship with rose-colored glasses tend to say things like this:
- “Now that I have found the right person life will be easy.”
- “Now that I am married, I will never be lonely again.”
- “We will not have the problems of other couples.”
It doesn’t take long for realism to set in. If we really love each other, if we were meant for one other, then it shouldn’t be this hard, we wouldn’t argue so much, we should be happier together. Couples begin to doubt the sincerity of their love and the genuineness of their commitment when they run into tough times.
The mistake many couples make is thinking that when storms hit the relationship is over. When the in-love feeling of a relationship diminishes the temptation is to think something is wrong. I may need to start over with another partner and try to recapture the zing, the thrill, the bliss, the euphoria of being in love.
The reality however is that the novelty, excitement, and emotional thrill of love settles into something more ordinary in every relationship. Some people become “love addicts” and spend their whole lives chasing the “in-love” high from one relationship to another. A normal part of every friendship is facing challenges, disagreements, and frustrations. It is these tough times that develop love into something stronger than a feeling.
The very trials we seek to avoid often grow love into a decision and a commitment, a lasting partnership, and a deep friendship. This is not to say that there is no zing for older couples. The zing comes back but in a more sustainable, longer-lasting, more permanent arrangement.
We know that good things can be hard. If you ever perfected a jump shot, learned to play the piano, mastered the art of public speaking, or improved a recipe, you know what we are talking about. Good things take time, patience, practice, and hard work. Why then are we surprised that marriage would be any different!
If you want to prepare yourself for a happy marriage, then adjust your mindset. Be realistic but not idealistic. The cure for idealism is expecting your marriage to be challenging but believing it is worth the hard work. Investing in a healthy marriage is the best thing you can do for yourself, your spouse, your family, and your friends.
A great deal of your happiness in life is going to come from a healthy marriage. When you encounter challenging times use those as leverage to develop new strengths and gain new tools. Later in this article, we will describe many of the tools that will help you thrive and not just survive.
Marriage Expectation Problem #2: We had problems from day one and it’s getting worse
When Ryan and Kelsey were going through premarital counseling, they were pessimistic about their chances of having a long-term happy marriage. They both had suffered as kids during their parent’s divorces. They were living together as boyfriend and girlfriend without any long-range plans. A surprise pregnancy catapulted them into the marriage track. They thought about ending the pregnancy but as the weeks passed, they started getting quietly excited about having a baby together.
Suddenly they were talking about what would be the best arrangement for their unborn child. They were determined to provide a safer and more secure upbringing than they had received. But they could never shake the growing fear in the back of their minds. “This marriage is doomed from the start.”
With 40-50% of marriages ending in divorce, we all know someone who was deeply hurt by a failed marriage. Maybe it was you! One of my assignments for a graduate class in family therapy was to spend a day at divorce court. It was depressing! Couples that loved each other so much that they took legal vows to protect their relationship until “death do us part” were ready to kill each other outside the courtroom.
How did love turn into anger and hatred? It was especially painful to watch the little children brought to court handle the sadness, fear, and pain caused by their parents’ break up. I watched as heated custody negotiations went on outside the courtroom with little children present.
It’s no wonder that some folks head into marriage with ingrained pessimism and emotional scars from past breakups. Who can blame a couple for wanting to leave a little wiggle room in case things don’t work out? Isn’t the whole point of a prenuptial agreement to be properly prepared for the dissolution of the marriage?
Others doubt that life-long monogamy is beneficial, practical, or even possible, in this day and age, of extramarital affairs and multiple sex partners. They reason, “If nature wanted us to be monogamous, we wouldn’t be attracted to others.” Some feel that marriage marks the end of their wild, carefree, single days and begins the slow decline into adult responsibility – a dull, boring, and mundane routine of commutes and carpools.
Whatever negative attitudes you brought into your marriage it’s like taking cream, sugar, and a few grains of arsenic with your coffee every morning. Over time, a negative mindset can easily poison your relationship.
The hard part about pessimistic feelings in your marriage is that you often find what you are looking for. If you are preparing for a flood you might bail at the first sound of raindrops. “I knew this wasn’t going to last.” And when it rains, it pours. In an avalanche of negative thoughts, it’s hard to see any good in your partner. It’s easy to feel hopeless. During these times it’s hard to believe your marriage will survive let alone thrive.
People with pessimistic expectations tend to whisper these kinds of thoughts to themselves
- “I will never find someone that truly makes me happy.”
- “I doubt this marriage will last.”
- “I know once we are married it’s going to get boring.”
- “We will never recover from our rocky start together.”
Are negative thoughts seriously affecting your attitude about your spouse and your marriage? For most people marriage is an exceptionally good arrangement. Consider these recent reputable studies measuring the happiness and healthiness of marriage.
- Being married is twenty times more important to a person’s happiness than earnings and thirteen times more important than owning a home (2013 U.K. Office of National Survey of 165,000 British people)
- Married people reported being happier than those who are cohabitating, single, divorced, or widowed. (2013 U.K. Office of National Survey of 165,000 British people)
- Being married protects against age-related declines in health. (2012 Michigan State University Study)
- People who were never married were more than twice as likely to die early as people in long-term relationships. (2014 Duke University Medical Center Study)
Negativity can ruin a relationship and it can ruin your health. An ancient Hebrew proverb says this, “A merry heart does good like a medicine: but a broken spirit dries the bones.” Proverbs 17:22 Did you ever consider that one of the best ways of avoiding a medical emergency or a marital emergency is to have a cheerful, optimistic, joyful personality. Let’s try and develop some positive thoughts.
First, you will need to minimize your negative influences. You can’t spend all your time watching negative media and hanging out with negative people and expect to be Mr. or Mrs. Positive when you come home. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Are your friendships harming your marriage? It’s something to think about. Do you need to make new friends or set a positive vibe for your old ones?
Train your brain to look for the positive in your partner. The cure for pessimism is practicing gratitude every day in all the small ordinary ways.
Do try this at home: Start the day with a positive affirmation for your spouse and your marriage. Before you even get out of bed, before your feet even hit the floor, come up with three things you are thankful for related to your spouse and your marriage. We will give you some examples from our marriage:
- I am thankful she is a farm girl with a great work ethic.
- I am thankful he comes home from work with a cheerful attitude.
- I appreciate his effort to plan family vacations.
- I love the way she gets so excited when she is describing something she is learning.
- I enjoy his sense of humor.
- I am grateful for her faith in me when I have doubted myself.
Now it’s your turn to practice optimism. When you think of your spouse what are you most thankful for?
Marriage Expectation Problem #3: My spouse no longer makes me happy
As a Marriage & Family Therapist at Seattle Christian Counseling, I often meet couples who have already given up on their marriage. They are coming to me for some kind of permission or final blessing so they can get divorced without too much guilt. The bottom line for many relates to their emotions. “I am not happy in this marriage. In fact, I am miserable in this marriage. This marriage is toxic for my health.”
Let’s be honest: most of us enter marriage thinking of all the benefits we will receive. We expect to be happy because our spouse will make us happy. We are enmeshed in a me-centered culture. We are accustomed to being served. We believe we are entitled to the best service, without any waiting, lines, or hassles. Let other people haggle over prices and bargain over produce in an open market. We deserve the best the world has to offer with instant gratification and a me-first attitude.
It’s easy to apply our cultural me-centrism to marriage and expect more than we are giving. To get the better of the deal. To do less than half of the work. To receive more than our share of emotional support. To receive happiness without having to work for it.
We hate to be the one to tell you this – but I suspect you already know it – there is a much grander purpose to marriage than our individual happiness. The purpose of marriage is to learn how to love another human being unselfishly and sacrificially within the safe and protected arrangement of a life-long partnership. And in so doing, we please God who created us and created marriage for our benefit. And as we love sacrificially, we find out what true happiness is about.
You may have heard 1 Corinthians 13 read at a wedding. It begins by poetically describing the importance of love, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or clanging symbol.”
A few sentences later, however, it gets very practical in its depiction of love. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
One thing is certainly clear – love is other-centered not self-centered. It is focused on giving and not taking. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us instead of fighting for our rights, we should be giving our rights away. But love majors on meeting others’ needs and not having my needs met first. Love trusts that if I work hard at meeting my spouse’s needs, my own needs will be met in the process.
This is easier said than done! My natural inclination is to protect myself; to look out for number one; to make sure my needs are being met. I love my spouse, but I don’t want to become a doormat. I don’t want to give him or her total control over the relationship. I don’t want to surrender my rights – my right to put my own interests and desires first.
But isn’t love in marriage all about That’s why it is so important for both partners to put the other first. Marriage can be very satisfying when making your partner happy is particularly important to you.
The cure for selfishness is asking God to fill you with love for your partner. When was the last time you asked God for help? How many times have you complained about your spouse? How about turning some of those complaints into prayers.
I hope this article has helped you have optimistic but realistic expectations about your marriage. If you need marriage counseling, I hope you will reach out to me or any of my colleagues at Seattle Christian Counseling.
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