When my husband and I took a personality test during our premarital counseling, it confirmed what we already knew to be true: we are exact opposites in many areas. He is exceedingly extroverted, and I am incredibly introverted. He is a visionary, and I am detail oriented. He comes alive after 9:00 p.m., just when I’m ready for bed. On vacation, I prefer to balance physical activities with reading, but he wants to squeeze in every possible hike, kayak, and museum, which means I often return from vacation happy but exhausted. As anyone who knows us would attest, my husband and I have had our share of conflict during the past twenty-six years.
Some of the conflict can be attributed to our personality differences and some to our sinful natures, but the bulk originates from the expectations we unwittingly brought into our marriage. And after over twenty years of doing ministry work together, I don’t think our experience is unique. Most couples have to work through key differences in expectations.
Where Do Our Expectations Come From?
Though we all carry expectations, we’re less aware of them than our more pressing needs, such as hunger or fatigue. These expectations might be how much money we should be saving, how to spend our days off, or the frequency of our intimate life. They tend to remain in the background even when we find ourselves in conflicts that can be traced directly back to them. If we want to learn from the disappointment and conflict that result from our divergent expectations, we first need to understand where they come from. Many sources contribute to our expectations, but I’d like to focus on three: our families of origin, society and culture, and the church.
Undoubtedly, our families of origin have the greatest influence in shaping our expectations. From the time we’re born, our families influence how we form opinions and internalize preferences. Think about how your family celebrated holidays and birthdays. Were they a big deal or not? Did they just include the nuclear family or did extended family members take part? Now consider your evening meal. Was everyone expected to sit down together or did your parents and siblings simply grab food on the go? How about vacations? Were they an annual event? Did they involve camping, high-end hotels, or a week with the cousins? The seemingly mundane events of life shape our expectations. Our family’s patterns typically habituate or incline us in the same direction if we enjoyed our family, or in the opposite direction if we did not enjoy our family.
In addition to our family’s culture, society adds another level of expectations. In North America, men are expected to amass power, withhold emotions (except at sporting events), and love eight-cylinder vehicles. Women are supposed to like shopping, enjoy talking on the phone, and be perpetually thirty-two. If you’re a woman from the south, there’s a strong bias for wearing make-up. If you’re a man from New England, you’re supposed to be a rabid fan of the Red Sox and Patriots. We might not be aware of culture’s influence on us, but there’s a strong pressure to conform.
Church culture also weighs in, sometimes adding helpful expectations, such as monogamous marriages, and sometimes unhelpful ones, such as attending three church meetings a week. Depending on your church background, you might think it’s expected to communicate when you mess up or you might think there’s an unspoken expectation that mistakes should stay hidden.
Why Do Expectations Cause Trouble?
In and of themselves, expectations are not necessarily problematic. It’s not wrong to prefer camping to the Hyatt or reading to watching TV. They become problematic for a host of complicated reasons, including a lack of flexibility and lack of awareness regarding their sources.
Some expectations act like a barbed wire fence to protect us from experiencing shame or pain. For example, early on in our marriage, my husband and I repeatedly clashed about coming home on time for dinner. We’d establish a plan, and then he would be significantly late. This did not happen every day, but it did occur on a somewhat regular basis. We’d renegotiate, and then find ourselves having déjà vu two weeks later. This dynamic became frustrating for both of us, which only amplified our resentment and obscured the actual problem.
I was slow to make the connection, but this cycle tapped into a wound from my childhood. During middle school, my father’s extended family had a messy falling out. Not long after, my father became addicted to alcohol. It was not uncommon for my two sisters and me to be sitting at the dinner table, tensely waiting for our dad to walk through the back door, not knowing whether he would be sober or drunk. Dinner became the most stressful time of my day.
Part of why I wanted my husband to come home on time was totally reasonable. We had young kids, I needed a break, and I missed him. What helped us work our way out of this seemingly intractable conflict was when I finally realized that my response to his lateness was totally out of proportion to the severity of his offense. My husband was not late because he was out drinking; he was late because he struggled with time management. His tardiness triggered my unresolved pain, which, like most humans, I desperately wanted to avoid. The two of us eddied around the issue for several years rather than hitting the pause button so that we could discern what was really driving our conflict.
The second reason expectations are problematic is we tend to moralize them, assuming our way is the best or the only way to do something. This is called ethnocentrism, and it played out in many areas of our marriage. For instance, my husband’s mother always cooked at least twice as much food as the immediate family needed, just in case someone stopped by. In her Italian culture, it would have been rude to turn away a neighbor, the parish priest, or whoever happened to drop in. Additionally, when serving pasta, it was mandatory to have a gravy boat with extra marinara sauce on the table. I never got this memo, and as a result, my husband perceived me to be an inadequate host for the first few years of our marriage.
I carried my own share of ethnocentrism. My father loved fixing things, including our family cars. After we got married, I assumed that my husband would not only change the oil in my car every three-thousand miles, but that he would also pay attention to the little yellow service light when it popped on. (I was wrong, and I now know my car is totally my responsibility.)
The most common reason expectations are problematic is that we come into marriage with unrealistic or misguided expectations. At the beginning of most relationships, we’re totally awash in the feel-good hormones that last anywhere between eighteen months and three years. These hormones create emotional highs, allowing us to minimize or overlook our beloved’s limitations. But as we all know, the honeymoon does eventually come to an end, leaving us each with a spouse who not only snores but also leaves his shoes in front of the door and forgets to pay the bills on time.
How we respond in those moments when we face the gap between who we imagined our spouses to be and who they actually are matters deeply. Will we cling to our expectations, dig into our conflicts, and ungraciously expect our spouses to conform to our expectations? Or will we choose to see that God is presenting us with an invitation to change and extend His love to them—so that our spouses and our marriages can flourish?
The next time you find yourself in an all-too-familiar conflict with your spouse or you feel waves of disappointment washing over you, step back and regroup. See if the two of you can figure out if what’s happening is connected your expectations. Ask yourself: Am I assuming that what’s comfortable for me is what’s best for us? Are my expectations good and godly or self-centered and culturally bound?
As we pursue healing for past wounds, curb our moralizing, and commit to honoring each other’s traditions, we learn how to realign our expectations and freely bless each other. Now, when my husband and I have company, I’m mindful of his desire to be generous, so I try to make more food than I know we’ll need. Sometimes, I even remember to put extra sauce on the table.