Marriage is not a love affair. Marriage is an ordeal, a trial, a test of faith and courage. Marriage is not a sprint. Marriage is a marathon, or even an ultramarathon.
Those are important things to know, understand, and accept before getting married, and before figuring out what your expectations are regarding your marriage.
Of course, few people who get married ever think about these things beforehand! Most get married in a confused, dizzying, romantic roller coaster ride. Often, they find themselves, a few years into marriage, wondering why things aren’t going the way they went in the early, romantic days before the wedding. “What happened?” they wonder, dazed and depressed.
What happened was a misalignment between their expectations and reality.
Expectations are just that – when you expect something to happen, or expect things to go a certain way. But, unless you’re psychic, you are often wrong, and that leads to hurt feelings, bitterness, anger and resentment, which don’t help marriages.
Perhaps you expect that your husband or wife is going to continue to be twenty years old, that they will keep working out four times a week at the gym and stay sexy. But instead they get busy with work or family obligations, or they just get older and their metabolism changes and they gradually get fat, or flabby, or lose their hair. Maybe you aren’t as sexually attracted to them anymore, and that’s a shock, because you assumed you would always be turned on by their body.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around – they aren’t attracted to you anymore, so the two of you stop having sex. You didn’t expect this to happen, you didn’t prepare and plan for it, but now here you are, wondering what to do.
Expectations can cover all different areas of your marriage, from sex to emotional stability to doing chores to having children to keeping a budget and paying bills to buying a home. When you expect certain things, either consciously or subconsciously, like “We’re going to buy a home in the suburbs and have four children together,” then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. What if you can’t find the right house, or can’t afford to buy it and you have to keep renting? What if you can’t have four children, or any children? Perhaps your spouse doesn’t want to have children, or maybe they can’t.
When your dreams about your marriage don’t come true, that can hurt and can really poison your relationship over time. You end up resenting your spouse directly, or resenting God or the great, uncaring universe that kept your dreams from being realized. This changes you, makes you angry, even if you aren’t directly aware of it, and it can lead to terrible disagreements and much damage to your marriage.
So, how do you keep your expectations realistic?
The easiest way to avoid unfulfilled expectations is just to not have any. If you don’t expect anything, you can’t ever be disappointed. Of course, this is impossible! Expectations are part of life, and a big part of marriage.
Being aware of your expectations is one way to manage them. Take some time to think about what you expect out of marriage, on a small and a large scale. Small scale means everyday things like doing chores, paying bills, handling daily routines, and so on. Do you, for example, expect that you will always drive to work, and that your spouse will, too? That means you’ll need to have two cars unless you work at the same place, so you’ll need to budget for that. Do you expect that your spouse will do certain chores? Which ones are they? Which chores do you hate the most? That’s something you should discuss together and work out.
Talking about your expectations with your spouse is very important, too. If you expect to have children and live in a particular place, it’s important to tell your spouse, so they can keep that in mind. If you hate cleaning the bathroom or doing laundry, but you never tell your spouse, how will they figure it out without being able to read your mind?
If you have an expectation that isn’t being met, it’s vital to bring that up, too. Perhaps you miss the romantic gestures like flowers or other surprises from your spouse in the early days of your relationship. You should let them know that you still enjoy getting flowers or chocolates or surprise dates now and then. Maybe it seems a little strange to ask for romance, but remember marriage is a marathon, and people get busy and tired and they forget things that came naturally in the past. So don’t be shy about asking for what you want and what you need.
Sex is another issue where expectations can play a big part. But sex, for various reasons, isn’t easy for all couples to talk about. Plenty of married couples settle into a routine where they have sex less often, or not at all, as their marriage progresses. If you are OK with that, then it’s no problem. But if it’s something you don’t like, the only way to change it is to talk to your spouse about it, and to figure out a plan together to solve the problem. You’ll find that once you start the conversation, it gets easier to talk about it.
Some things may be simply too difficult to talk about. Telling your spouse you aren’t sexually attracted to them because they are overweight is not an easy conversation to have, and you may feel it wouldn’t help anything to do so. You’re probably right. In that type of situation, the best thing you can do is to focus on your own health and fitness, and suggest activities you can do together with your spouse, like regular walks or bike rides, or even joining a gym. If you cultivate an active, healthy lifestyle yourself, it’s bound to have some effect on your spouse, too.
But in the end, you may not be successful. Your expectations themselves may end up being easier to change than your spouse.
If you’ve been disappointed because one of your dreams, big or small, didn’t work out, don’t bury those feelings. Be sure to find a safe and healthy way to express them, whether to your partner or to someone else like a trusted friend or a professional therapist. Sometimes talking about marriage troubles with other married friends helps because you realize you aren’t dealing with these issues alone. Every married person has to accept that some of their expectations are not going to be fulfilled.
A final word – try hard to focus on the many aspects of your marriage you are happy about and grateful for. Acknowledge the failures, the disappointments, yes, but keep all the wonderful benefits of your marriage – love, support, family, financial security, friendship – always in your mind. Write a list of them every morning if that helps. One way of realistically managing your expectations is to remind yourself how many wonderful things have come true in your marriage.