When I look back on my teen years, I smile thinking about all the expectations I had of my future spouse. Let’s suffice it to say the list was rather long including dark hair and brown eyes. I suppose the hair and eyes were just wishes; but, at any rate, I wanted an amazing husband. Perhaps I was a bit inexperienced (or, very inexperienced), but I had no idea what a quality spouse looked like – or that it had nothing to do with looks.
Recently, I sat at the beach with some friends talking about how life has not gone as planned for each of us and our laughing about how our expectations have changed. “My list has gotten shorter,” one friend said. “He just needs to love Jesus and have teeth.” I asked her if the teeth had to be his. “Nope! They can be partials!”
When I was about seventeen, I remember my co-worker telling me that kids my age are always looking for something better. That we are always waiting for a better boyfriend or girlfriend to come into our lives. At the time, I did not believe her but as I look back on my life, I can see where she was right. Maybe it is all the movies we watched, the prince and princess fairytales we read, or the love stories we heard from parents and grandparents, but most of us hope for (i.e., expect) a tremendous love story. The story we dream of may look significantly different than what others hope for, but most of us want a love story for the ages.
Then, we find “the one” and we flirt, talk, grow closer, and get married. Everything is just great… until our (often unacknowledged) expectations catch up with us. They hide at first, some for weeks and some for years, but they are there waiting patiently for their chance to pop up and rock the boat. Some expectations are small. Eric wanted me to fold our towels the way his mom folded them. Quite frankly, I did not really care, so I folded them his way. Some expectations have a more and lasting impact on the relationship – financial decisions, frequency of sex, how much time to spend together, career choices, etc.
If I knew then what I know now, I hope I would take more time to think through what I expected out of Eric and out of marriage in general. We might have saved ourselves some arguments and heartaches had we vetted our expectations before pledging our lives to each other.
So, the following is for twenty-two-year-old Heather and anyone else who is married, engaged, dating, or considering marriage at some point in the future:
- First, discover your expectations. Some expectations never surface until we are faced with something unexpected. As you grow in your relationship, more expectations will make themselves known, but in the meantime, you can try to unearth some in advance. Write down what you know you expect, even if you are embarrassed by it. Be honest with yourself. Then, take notice as you go about your life. When something causes a conflict – major or minor – take a step back and process. What expectation did he or she violate? What expectation of his or hers did I violate? Finally, create some scenarios where you can discover expectations. Work on a project together. Go on a daytrip. Plan a birthday party for each other. The more life you live with one another, the more opportunities your expectations will have to make themselves known.
- After you write down some of your expectations, look over them and search for idealism. Whenever a standard of perfection is part of an expectation, there will be disappointment. I expect my future husband to earn at least $50,000 a year. For a lot of his life and your marriage, this may be perfectly realistic depending on what type of work he decides to do; but, you also never know what the future may bring. There could be sickness. There could be massive layoffs. Industries change. Or, there could be a pandemic. If your expectation is that he always earn at least $50,000 a year, that can cause you disappointment, potential resentment, and create a rift between you.
- Once you look over your expectations and highlight unrealistic areas, rewrite your expectations more realistically. Such as: I desire my future husband to earn $50,000 per year by the five-year mark of his career. However, I understand that some years he may earn more and some years he may earn less. My realistic expectation is that does what is necessary to provide well for our family and that he makes wise choices with money during the good times to prepare for those seasons when he may not be able to earn as much. As his partner, I will be willing and ready to help if there comes a season when he cannot work.
- Verbally repeat this phrase often: “My spouse will not meet all my expectations.” The more you say it, the more you will believe it. No matter how wonderful your life’s partner may be, he or she is going to let you down or even fail you repeatedly. Only God can boast in perfection. Only God is the one who will never let us go. “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8, ESV) If seemingly perfect people truly were perfect, Hollywood would have an astonishingly low divorce rate. No matter how flawless that man or woman seems now, the cracks are coming. Makeup wears off eventually. “Never idealize others. They will never live up to your expectations. Don’t over-analyze your relationships. Stop playing games. A growing relationship can only be nurtured by genuineness.” – Leo Buscaglia
- Acknowledge that just because you expect something does not mean he or she owes it to you. Early in our marriage, I expected Eric to treat me the same way my dad treated me. Dad was almost always warm, caring, and he talked to me in a different tone of voice than he talked to other people. I always left him feeling like I mattered (and I will always appreciate that about him). Eric, who has a completely different personality than my dad did, was not gentle or warm in the same way my dad was with me and that was a great affront to me. After a while, however, I realized Eric does not have biological love for me. He did not watch me grow up. We do not share blood and genes. I am not his child. I am his partner. Dad did not have to make financial decisions with Dad did not have to plan for the future with me. Dad did not have to share textbooks with me. Dad could look at his adult daughter and smile knowing I was raised and healthy. By nature, Eric’s relationship with me was (and is) far different and not every interaction was going to be rosy. As the years passed, I came to appreciate the differences in their personalities and what they both brought to my life. Just because I expected Eric to treat me the same way Dad treated me did not mean he owed me a fundamental personality change. Over the years, Eric has become kinder and more gracious with me and I am grateful for that. Paul Tripp said that “any change your spouse makes towards your liking is an act of grace.”
- Remember that your expectations are not Scripture. How do your expectations for your partner compare to God’s expectations for your partner? What do you expect that is a preference issue and not a godliness issue? Expecting your spouse to be faithful is a godliness issue but expecting him to help you clean the house every Saturday morning or expecting her to join you at every sporting event is a preference issue. As you review your expectations, group them into biblical versus preferential. Keep in mind, those who love Jesus are still humans saved by grace. He or she will sometimes fail even in the biblical categories which makes forgiveness in marriage a must.
- Reframe your perspective. Rather than saying, “I expect” say, “I desire.” The word ‘expectation’ is like a gavel pounding a wooden desk. Case closed. Conversation over. You owe me what I want. Period. Whereas the word ‘desire’ has a softer feel. Desire is like a gentle request. Even changing out the word ‘expectation’ for ‘desire’ in a sentence changes the attitude of my heart. “I expect you to hug and kiss me goodnight every night.” When I say this, my insides tighten, almost as if I am waiting for him to fail me. But when I say, “I desire that you hug and kiss me goodnight every night” my gut relaxes, and I feel warmth and appreciation for his efforts.
- Discuss your expectations (desires) with each other before getting engaged. If there are some major expectations with which either of you are uncomfortable, now is the time to discuss them. If he expects the lavish lifestyle of two working professionals, and she wants to be the mother of a large family, that is a major difference. If she wants to build orphanages in Africa and he wants to open a service station in his hometown, there might be a problem.
In the dating and (sometimes) engaged season of a relationship, we try hard to meet each other’s expectations. We do this in part because we want our person to continue thinking highly of us, but also because we feel so much appreciation for his or her affections. If we were honest, we would say “I love you for loving me!” or “Thank you for loving me as much as l love myself!”
Because we spend much of our early relationship working hard to fulfill each other’s needs, we sometimes proceed to marriage thinking everything will stay the same. He is so loving. He is always going to kiss my hand and open my doors. She is so kind. She is always going to cook me dinner and rub my neck. But, with marriage comes the realities of life. Eric and I spent less time together after we got married than we did when we were dating. For me, that was an expectation shattered! It turns out, I like relaxing a lot more than Eric realized (maybe because when we were dating, we were always doing something together). And his expectation of me working as hard as he originally thought I would (and I displayed in graduate school)… vanished away.
So, not all his expectations of me were (or are) met… and not all my expectations of him were (or are) met. But, when dating, that does not mean the relationship should automatically be discarded. Some of those expectations are simply preferential desires – and, we do not always get what we want in life (and sometimes that is good for us too). However, other expectations you may have you may feel much more strongly about. Take these expectations and write them down. Discuss them with older, wiser couples you trust and ask them If those expectations are reasonable and, if so, good ways of vetting that the other person will likely be to meet them (a simple verbal declaration and assent from the other person is often not enough for these stronger, legitimate expectations). But, if you are dating and you are waiting for another person to match your expectation or desire list 100%… you will likely be waiting a long time and may even die alone. So, temper your must-have list with wisdom and reasonableness.
We all – from the most wound up to the most laid back – have expectations. It is a normal part of the human condition. Some of us expect a ton from others and some of us expect a little, but everyone expects something. So, the question is not “do I have expectations?” but “what are my expectations and are they realistic?” Your partner can help you decide what is and what is not realistic, and if you discover deal breakers along the way, that is okay. It is better to know now.
No matter who you marry, there will be joys and disappointments. Preparing for an imperfect spouse can help you shed years of built-up idealistic anticipation. Like my mom told me thirty years ago when I was drooling over Michael J. Fox, “He has bad breath in the morning like everyone else.” ~smile~
We can take comfort in knowing that though our earthly partner will not meet our expectations, we have a Heavenly Father who loves us flawlessly and provides for us as He sees fit – which is also flawlessly.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV)
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19, ESV)
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26, ESV)
Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:1-2, ESV)
Approach God boldly, expecting Him to do exactly what He promised in His Word and approach your partner with the same grace you desire.
Keep breaking free!!!
Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed. – Albert Einstein
Relationships become rocky when men and women fail to acknowledge they are biologically different and when each expects the other to live up to their expectations. Much of the stress we experience in relationships comes from the false belief that men and women are now the same and have the same priorities, drives and desires. –Barbara Pease
Have you unearthed your expectations about love and marriage?