Not long after my husband and I got married, we started having conflicts about what it meant to be home in time for dinner. After negotiating what seemed like a reasonable compromise, we developed a routine: he’d be late, I’d get angry, he’d apologize, and then we would have a déjà vu moment a few weeks later.
This was just one of many areas of conflict. We disagreed on how much food to prepare when we had guests, how quickly bills should be paid, and how often we needed to visit our extended families. We also fought about who should do the laundry and who should get the oil changed.
The frequency and intensity of our conflicts confused us. We were both communicative and reasonably mature. Why did we clash so much on these seemingly incidental issues? The problem wasn’t simply that we were strong-willed and opinionated. Unbeknownst to us, we entered marriage with a moving van full of expectations.
Expectations, in and of themselves, aren’t evil. In fact, they can often be very good. They help us understand our basic needs and wants. They play a valuable role in marriage: if we can’t expect certain things from our spouse, our marriage is vulnerable to failure.
Every couple will have their own unique expectations, but I would argue that there are three non-negotiables for every marriage: fidelity, honesty, and forgiveness. Some other expectations Christopher and I have are that we’ll work through conflict in a timely fashion, spend reasonable amounts of time together, and equitably share household responsibilities.
Few would find fault with those expectations. But, if you have been married more than a month, you will immediately notice the potential problem with the additional expectations Christopher and I have. What exactly does “timely fashion” mean: an hour or a full day? Does “reasonable” refer to one evening a week or five? Who determines what’s “equitable”? Because none of us clearly define our terms before saying “I do,” there’s bound to disappointment and conflict connected to expectations. After twenty-five years of marriage I am convinced that we can reduce the intensity, duration, and frequency of these conflicts if we take the time to understand the expectations we bring into marriage.
Our Expectations Are Shaped at an Early Age
Expectations emerge out of needs and preferences, both of which exist before we even celebrate our first birthday. Despite the fact that language skills are months away, babies have an uncanny ability to communicate their likes and dislikes. Our first-born had to be swaddled or he screamed. Our second wailed when his diaper was the least bit damp. Our third howled unless we allowed him to sleep on top of us. (This lasted for six long months.) Each one of our sons developed expectations based on their unique physical, spiritual, and psychological needs. The quality and consistency of the care that a young child receives shapes their expectations for future relationships.