How Can Dealing with Unmet Expectations Help in Marriage Counseling?
One of the foundational problems we see frequently in marriage counseling, is unmet expectations. Its natural to have some healthy expectations of your partner. But often problems arise when we project expectations onto our partner that are based on fears or insecurities. It’s important to cultivate self-awareness of our own expectations, and ask ourselves is this my spouse’s responsibility, or is there an underlying fear that needs to be addressed directly with God.
Causes of Unmet Expectations:
- Selfishness – Wanting what we want when we want it regardless of the cost to the other person. Or on the receiving end, what happens when you clearly express your expectations, and your partner fails to comply or says no or says yes but doesn’t follow through?
- Withholding information – Attempting to appear unselfish, this spouse doesn’t disclose his or her preferences or desires, then resents or criticizes his or her partner for failing to “meet his or her needs” or not understanding him or her. Isn’t it interesting how often stiflers are married to expressors?
- Miscommunication – Failure to “close the loop” may set the stage for frustrating mixed signals. Once, at Knott’s Berry Farm, Pauly took the boys on a ride, and I said I’d meet them “right here,” then decided to take Jessica on the train ride. Pauly got off her ride, expecting to see me and didn’t know what to do. I got off my ride and she wasn’t there. We wandered the park separately for the next several hours until she finally found Jessi and me in the parking lot at closing time (which totally ruined Pauly’s enjoyment of the time, by the way).
- Insensitivity – Not understanding each other’s feelings and walking all over them. Biting remarks, sarcasm, thoughtless words, yelling or snapping at your spouse because “I had a bad day” characterize the mate who expects his or her partner to endure, submit, love, honor, and obey no matter how he or she is treated.
- Family of origin patterns – Each of us tends to view our childhood home life, no matter how dysfunctional, as “normal.” Often our idealistic values influence our actions less than the model our parents provided. These patterns affect our perceptions of roles, time management, holidays, humor, childrearing, celebrations, finances, and etiquette, just to name a few.
- Core values – Despite shared love for the Lord, a Christian couple may hold diverse positions based on education, upbringing, and influential people in their lives. Bev comes from a conservative church background that forbade dancing, card playing and movies. Bob, who accepted Christ later in life, grew up without restrictions or the benefit of a Christian upbringing. Combining their views and values presents a continual challenge for them.
- Personality – Jeri always expects the worst, Tom thinks everything works out for the best, Glenn believes he can “fix it” no matter what, while Stuart rages at the injustice in the world. As a new bride, Pauly (the perfectionist) expected me not to make mistakes, while I (the generalist) learn by making mistakes. Our basic personalities are determined by God, so celebrate them. Yet partners with opposite approaches to life’s situations may find themselves in continual conflict based on their expectations.
Different fears affect how we react to situations so that our partner doesn’t always respond in what we assume should be a normal and logical way to behave.
Letting Go of Unhealthy Expectations for a Healthy Marriage
What steps can you take to “flatten the bumps” unmet expectations to make in your relationship work? Here are eight suggestions to smooth out that bumpy road, that leads to a successful marriage:
- Gain awareness of your own expectations. Many people don’t even think about their expectations; they just act them out. Once you recognize your internal desires and motivations, you’re better equipped to share them with your spouse and to defuse the sometimes-mystifying range of emotions that accompany unfulfilled expectations. Stiflers need to practice getting in touch with and expressing their wants.
- Develop the “want-to.” You must have the desire and willingness to release your expectations, to not insist on your own way, to compromise, to adjust. Ask the Lord to soften your heart. It’s important for the expressor to ask the stifler about his or her wants before expressing their own desires (after which the stifler may not want to express for fear of appearing cantankerous or selfish then facing possible rejection).
- Make the Truth your standard. Sometimes it’s easier to apply Scripture to others’ situations than to your own. Prayerful reading of the Bible gives us God’s plumb line for our marriages. Healthy introspection, journaling, prayer and meditation on God’s Word help adjust your expectations to match God’s character rather than your own selfish desires.
- Get objectivity. Home groups, support groups for your issues, and counselors (whether professional or not) all provide unique settings where we can feel free to share openly. Talking with a trusted confidante may open your eyes to those things about yourself you don’t see on your own.
- Observe other healthy marriages. Forming a network of couples who meet regularly to socialize, share, and pray for one another provides opportunity to see how others interact. Bring specific discussion questions to learn how both spouses feel about the issues affecting their marriages.
- Talk to your spouse. Communicate with one another in a peaceful, relaxed setting. Ask for feedback on how you’re coming across (perhaps, demanding or whining). Use open questions, such as, “What do you think I want regarding this issue” or “What am I doing to cause you to respond to me in a defensive way?” If you find talking face to face too threatening, try writing out your questions and responses in letters to each other. If it is to threatening to talk at the moment, take a “time out” and ask for a specific time to talk later. It’s no less selfish to withhold information about your expectations than to express it. Either way, the desires are still there. And to expect your partner to mind read is unrealistic and sets up impossible performance standards.
- Pray together. The honesty and humility required when you come together before the Lord will put you both on equal ground at the foot of the cross. In that place of spiritual openness and vulnerability, the Holy Spirit can convict you of unrealistic or selfish desires.
- Have fun. With all our responsibilities, many of us never take time off just to have a good time, especially with their spouse.
Nurture a Culture of Love in Your Marriage
Dr. Gary Rosberg says in his book The 5 Love Needs of Men and Women:
“In our national survey, a majority of both men and women told us that unconditional love is their number one love need from their marriage partner. No doubt many would expect the number one need for men to be sex and number one need for women to be communication, but that was not what we found. Instead, as different as men and women can be, both agreed on this one truth: We all need to be loved unconditionally by our spouse.”
- What is an unrealistic expectation that you have of your partner?
- How can you gain a realistic perspective on him or her?
- What would you like or do you expect from your partner that is possible for him or her to do?
Pray for each other that God will help you love one another and expect the best.
Ephesians 4:31-32 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”