TOM AND LAURA came to see us just nine months after their wedding. They had swallowed the happily-ever-after sugar pill whole and were now feeling queasy.
"Before we got married we couldn't bear to be apart," Laura said. "I thought we'd do even more things together once we were married. But now Tom says he needs more space. It's like he's not the guy I married."
Tom rolled his eyes, but Laura continued. "He used to be so considerate and thoughtful … "
"Oh, and I'm a total slouch now?" Tom interrupted.
"Of course not. You—or maybe we—are just different now."
Nervously twisting his wedding band, Tom looked at Laura. "Marriage isn't what I expected, either. I didn't expect a big honeymoon or anything, I just thought you'd try to make life a little easier for me. Instead, when I come home from the office, all you want is to go out or … "
"I make dinner for you every night," Laura said.
Silenced by their display of unrestrained emotion, they looked at us as if to say, "See! Our marriage isn't what it's supposed to be."
When they got married, Tom and Laura had heard that marriage was hard work, but they didn't expect it to be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job.
The expectation of an easy marriage can be destructive. Plaguing every unsatisfied couple is a vast assortment of expectations about what marriage should be, juxtaposed with the reality of what marriage is.
It's Not Supposed to Be Like This
Every partner brings to marriage a host of conscious and unconscious expectations—many of which remain unfulfilled. Neil and Cathy, who'd been married four years, each had a clear image of what life together would be like. They never discussed it; they simply assumed the other had the same picture in mind.
"I expected married life to bring more stability and predictability to our lifestyle," Cathy said. "To me it meant working in the garden together."
"I wanted our marriage to be exciting and spontaneous, not ho-hum," Neil said. "To me it meant riding a motorcycle together."
For years, Cathy and Neil had fantasized about life after crossing the threshold. They'd watched their parents, read books, seen TV shows and movies. With little effort, each formed an idea of what it would be like to live as a married couple.
Consciously and unconsciously, Neil and Cathy each painted brush strokes on their mental canvas. But it never occurred to either of them that the other would be working from a different palette. They simply assumed they'd work with complementary colors and similar styles. But their first year together revealed sharp and unexpected contrasts. While Cathy painted carefully with delicate pastels, Neil painted boldly with primary colors.
Their expectations had clashed, leading them to wonder if their marriage was a mistake. To avoid disillusionment, they would have to bring things out into the open.
When conflicting expectations cause a problem, they usually fall into two categories: unspoken rules and unconscious roles. Unspoken rules are hidden, and we all have them. This often becomes painfully obvious to newlyweds the first time they visit relatives with their new spouse.
One Christmas, we flew from Los Angeles to Chicago to be with extended family. We spent the first night with Leslie's family. In keeping with lifelong tradition, she woke up early to squeeze every possible minute into being together with the family. But I slept in. My family had always enjoyed a slower, easier pace during the holidays.
Leslie interpreted my sleeping in as rejection. She felt I didn't value time with her family. "It's embarrassing to me," she said. "Everyone is up and eating in the kitchen. Don't you want to be with us?"
Her intensity caught me off guard. "What did I do? I'm just catching up from jet lag. I'll come down after my shower." I had broken a rule I didn't even know existed, and Leslie discovered a rule she'd never put into words. Both of us felt misunderstood and frustrated.
Unspoken rules don't surface until an unsuspecting spouse "breaks" one of them. To keep little problems from turning into big ones, Leslie and I try to discuss our secret expectations and make our subtle rules known. We also help the couples we counsel become more aware of their unspoken rules. Here are some of the hidden rules we've uncovered:
- Don't interrupt another's work.
- Don't ask for help unless you're desperate.
- Don't call attention to yourself.
- Don't raise your voice.
- Don't talk about negative feelings.
As they begin to voice their clashing unspoken rules, couples can create a balance of relationship rules they can agree on.
While unspoken rules trip us up when we least expect it, they're not the only source of mismatched expectations. Think about the unconscious roles that you and your partner fall into, almost involuntarily. Just as an actor in a play follows a script, so do married couples. Without knowing it, a bride and groom are drawn into prescribed ways of relating to each other that are a mixture of personal dispositions, family backgrounds and marital expectations.
Mark and Jenny ran into their unconscious roles head-on. The trouble began during the three days they had set aside after their honeymoon to set up their new home. Following the script they inherited from their families of origin, each of them looked to the other to take the lead. Jenny's dad had all the right tools and was handy around the house. Her mom simply assisted him when needed. Mark's dad was a busy executive who hardly knew how to replace a light bulb. In Mark's home, it was Mom who hung the pictures and arranged the furniture. Mark and Jenny fell into their "assigned" roles as husband and wife, and each wondered why the other wasn't pulling his or her weight.
Most couples follow a script that was written by the role models they grew up with. Being aware of these scripts is often all it takes to make couples aware of their unconscious roles and allow them to write a new script together.
Mark and Jenny went through their first year of marriage without ever hanging a single picture. Their prescribed roles prevented it. Not until they were in counseling did they become aware of their unconsciously assigned roles and set out to change them. "Now we're building our own marriage and not just being robots," says Jenny.
The expectations you bring to your partnership can make or break your marriage. Don't miss out on the best of marriage because your ideals are out of sync. Don't believe the myth of identical expectations. Instead, remember that the more open you are about your expectations, the more likely they are to be aligned with reality. And the more likely you are to share and fulfill your greatest expectations.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of numerous books including Becoming Soul Mates and
Relationships (both published by Zondervan). You can visit Les and Leslie at
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail