Who takes out the trash? Who balances the checkbook? Who does the yard work? Who makes the final decision on where you live? All relationships come with expectations, and marriage is certainly no exception.
For most couples, the expectations of your covenant relationship were both verbalized and non-verbalized. Think about it. What did you promise to your spouse when you got married? What expectations did you say out loud in your wedding vows? To love, honor, and cherish? For richer or for poorer? In sickness and in health? For better or for worse? Forsaking all others? You might have vocalized these or other similar sentiments.
But along with what you said out loud, there were probably some implied expectations for the marriage relationship. I don’t recall ever having been to a wedding where the preacher said, “And do you Fred, promise not to be an obnoxious jerk who constantly embarrasses Jenny? Do you also promise not to be abusive to her?” or “Jenny, do you promise not to consistently lie to Fred so that he never knows what to believe? And do you promise not to demean and emasculate him in the way you talk about him with others?” There are (or at least should be) expectations of certain behaviors and character traits that a person should seek in a mate.*
Because you and your spouse are coming from different backgrounds and different life experiences, and because God created you to be unique, there is often a temptation to assume or project your own expectations on your spouse. The expectations we bring to our marriage relationships can create a harmonious home or cause constant strife. Even after being married for years, a couple can still be at odds over how something should be done because it was done very differently in the families in which each spouse grew up. While every couple will have to maneuver at least some expectation adjustments (hey, you have to decide if you’re going to view navigating those differences as a fun adventure and learning experience or as a constant sore spot), here are a few thoughts that might help.
First, having unrealistic expectations will destroy a marriage relationship. Some people have unrealistic expectations of themselves. The desire to be the perfect wife/husband, perfect mother/father, perfect daughter/son, perfect employee, perfect church volunteer, perfect neighbor…you get the idea…can be overwhelming. This is not to give us an excuse to shirk responsibilities or not use our God-given gifts and talents, but unrealistic expectations lead to constant feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression, and fatigue.
And some people have unrealistic expectations of their spouse, always bemoaning how their mate could do things more efficiently or act better. Never forget, you are not perfect and the person you married is not perfect either. He will make mistakes. She will fall short at times. Your mate will need forgiveness and empathy. God didn’t give us all the exact same set of gifts or abilities, and just because you (or someone else’s mate) can do something, that doesn’t necessarily, mean your spouse can do the same.
Second, having no expectations will also destroy a marriage. All relationships carry expectations. It is necessary for a couple to have expectations if they want a healthy marriage. Mutually agreed upon expectations provide healthy boundaries that lead to blessings in a marriage relationship. Where there are no expectations, eventually animosity and resentment begin to grow, as major things (and minor things necessary for daily living) begin to fall through the cracks. A marriage simply cannot function without expectations.
And finally, lovingly verbalize your expectations to your spouse while asking his/her expectations of you. As I said, we often assume expectations based on our own backgrounds. Even if it seems obvious or redundant, it is always better to actually vocalize expectations. You cannot over-communicate. This is especially true when significant changes happen in the marriage relationship. Career changes, the different stages of your children’s development, major health changes, aging parents, crises with extended family, spiritual changes—there is an endless list of major and minor scenarios that can cause a couple to need to readjust and reaffirm the expectations of their relationship. When these things happen, it is always easier to assume how your spouse will respond. But don't assume. Always verbalize any changes in expectations.
As you discuss expectations with your spouse, be careful not to let your expectations slip into a self-centered, “needs”-based list of demands. Every marriage should have expectations, but no marriage should have a tyrant who demands his/her spouse satisfy every whim.
So, the next time you’re tempted to look at your spouse and say, “What did you expect out of me?” —take the time to sincerely ask.
*Whether they were evident before a couple said their vows or if they didn’t appear until decades later, consistently demeaning, deceitful, and/or abusive behaviors are sometimes present in a marriage. If this is present in your relationship, immediately seek competent professional counseling and protection if necessary. For the sake this post though, I was only addressing normal encounters caused by conflicting or unspoken expectations.
If you are in the Middle Tennessee area, please join me Saturday, Sept. 29th for a 3-hour Marriage Enrichment Workshop hosted by the Leanna Church of Christ.