The Unexpected

Before Tony and I were married, we led a small group for married and engaged couples. We used a great DVD series from Andy Stanley at North Point Church in Georgia called “iMarriage”. What we learned in that group has become part of the underlying dialogue in our marriage, the voices in our heads, preventing some of the most common and most unnecessary fights. We learned about expectations.

Did the topic of expectations come up before you were married, too? Has it come up since you said your I do’s? Maybe someone guided you, or you decided together, to lay out your expectations of one another.

“I expect you to work and I expect to stay home once we have children.”
“I expect to handle the finances and I expect you to trust me to do it.”
“I expect to have sex three to five times per week.”
“I expect to go on vacation at least once per year.”

Where do expectations come from?

Whether you sat down to do this exercise together or you just allowed your expectations to live in your head, those expectations are probably there guiding your behavior with one another.  If you had a counselor or someone guiding you through it, they may have shared with you that a lot of your expectations come from the way you were raised, your family of origin. Women tend to expect from men whatever they saw their fathers do. Men tend to expect from women whatever they saw in their mothers. This is somewhat natural. Whatever the model of “wife” or “husband” or “parent” we have in our backgrounds can attribute to a set of expected behaviors or roles for our spouses to meet. Of course, we know that no two families are alike and different things work well in different households. Throw in the complications of growing up with a single parent or multiple blended families. Without a dad at home, where should my expectations of a husband come from? Does your husband expect you to act more like his mother or his step-mother or both? It’s easy to see how quickly the issue of expectations in a marriage can really muddle things up.

Even if we state our expectations explicitly early on, or revisit them every few years or so, doesn’t it seem like such a mess? What if your husband isn’t interested in being the chef in the family like your dad was? What if your wife never puts the laundry away in the dresser drawers the way it should be done and always leaves it in the laundry basket, and you’re never sure if it’s clean or dirty? How many times does one of you have to remove the wet towel off of the bed and remind the other how gross it is? How much more clearly can you say, “I really don’t like cleaning an entire wig of hair out of the shower drain, Honey”? In the grand scheme of things, these hardly seem like fights worth having. So, what do we do?

Throw out your expectations.

According to Andy Stanley, instead of making our expectations clear to one another, we should throw them out altogether!

Ok, take a deep breath before you read on.
[Inhale]       [Exhale]       [Inhale]       [Exhale]

In his series, iMarriage, Mr. Stanley shows us that love cannot thrive where expectations live. He challenges us to look at the expectations we already have naturally, and even to name them. But then, once we know what they are, we should get rid of them. Extinguish them. Take the imaginary box of expectational burdens away from our spouse once and for all. What happens, he says, when we have expectations in our marriages is that even when our spouse fulfills our expectation, all they have really done in our minds is met the minimum requirements. They have not impressed us or shown us love, they have only fulfilled the essential requirements of this marriage contract. He says, then, that by getting rid of our expectations, we have the opportunity to actually be grateful for one another and to love and receive love in our marriage. We can get rid of these non-negotiable expectations we have of our spouses by changing them into hopes. If you can HOPE instead of EXPECT, you can repaint the entire canvas of your every-day lives.

Disappointments and Fight Prevention

Checking yourself for misplaced expectations is also a great exercise in fight prevention. When you are irritated with your spouse, before you spout off, ask yourself, “Is this about an expectation I have? Have I ever mentioned this expectation to my spouse? What if I turned my expectation into a hope, holding nothing against my loved one if they don’t come through? Would I still be so upset?”

One of the guarantees of holding onto expectations is disappointment. You will never be able to measure up to each other’s expectations 100% of the time. Hopes, however, have an entirely different perspective at their foundation. They are approached without expectation, without entitlement, and instead, when they are fulfilled, they are received with gratitude. Just think of the difference between a kid who expects to get the newest Nintendo for Christmas and one who merely hopes. The boy who expects the Nintendo and gets it may be pleased, but his excitement is sure to fade fast. After all, he expected to receive the Nintendo. Now, think of the kid who hopes and prays for it, and then opens that same gift. The second child is absolutely delighted, grateful to receive what he had hoped for, but did not expect. Which child would you like to be? As the giver, how would you rather be received? Removing expectations brings the possibility for you to delight in each other.

As Tony and I worked through the iMarriage material, he seemed to have a much easier time with it than I had. I kept bringing it up with him, “So, is he saying I should expect nothing at all from you? That you’re totally off the hook for everything? I mean, how is that going to work?” Tony, always patient and also very black and white, lovingly pointed out that I was also “off the hook” in this scenario. We talked together about the every day stuff we now hoped one another would help with – the trash, the checkbook, the wet towel on or off the bed – and we committed to keep talking about it as things came up.

A lot has changed since we first learned these concepts about expectations. I’m home now with our two little girls, he works all day, and then often has some freelance work keeping him up late at night. The work it takes to keep our lives running smoothly – the chores, the time we spend together, the parenting, the time we spend with friends –  shifts with the seasons. Just a few years ago, Tony did 90% of the cooking in our family. He loves to cook and he’s really good at it. Now that he works so much away from home, I cook more often than he does. We wouldn’t have dinner until 8 o’clock at night if I’d decided to keep that as an expectation instead of shifting my role in our marriage team. So, while the meals aren’t as creative as they once were, Tony makes me feel appreciated (even if he is dousing it in salt and pepper and hot sauce). Letting go of firm expectations allows us much more flexibility as our life together continues to change.

Removing expectations can give you and your spouse room to breathe and love and serve each other and be grateful to one another for all of the little things each of you will do on a daily basis to make your lives work. It will give you clearer eyes to see when she puts the laundry in the drawers and when he takes a stab at making a meal. It will increase your gratitude for one another and decrease those daily frustrations. It takes some time to adjust, especially if you’ve been holding expectations for a while, but it is so worth the effort to #staymarried.

5 thoughts on “The Unexpected

  1. This article makes some very good points and is correct about the effect on personal attitudes of having expectations vs. hopes. However, for the sake of argument and honesty, let’s admit that basing long-term happiness on lowering expectations is not the route to the marital sweet spot because it does nothing for actual behavior improvement other than temporarily remove a cause of conflict. On the contrary (and I base this on 45 years experience being married to a perfectionist), negotiating higher expectations both strive to meet can lead to personal behavior improvement that can accumulate to a state of mutual compatibility and support that creates a meaningful barrier to straying.

    Getting your partner to lower expectations easily becomes a game of manipulation. It’s very important that both partners be in the relationship because they want to be, and that expectations be both realistic and balanced.

    1. Argentcedar, CONGRATS! 45 years is phenomenal! If having and increasing expectations is working for you, then keep at it. My heart is to help people see the lack of gratitude that comes when a spouse is simply meeting expectations. I think it’s entitlement and a lack of gratitude that can put people at odds with one another instead of remembering they are on the same team working together. But, again, congratulations and you won’t hear me arguing with anyone that’s been married as long as you have. Way to go!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your insights! It takes a lot of patience, discernment, courage and wisdom to do what you are doing. My husband (Mario) and I can relate to you and Tony. Mario grew up in a wonderful, loving and supportive home while my parents divorced and my dad stopped communicating with me. I appreciate your perspective and look forward to reading more. 🙂

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