As frustrating as people can be, it’s hard to find a good substitute. – John Ortberg
In my work with couples I often find it helpful to discuss some of their recent arguments. We work to identify the triggers and the underlying beliefs that cause one or both partners to feel wronged. When describing events that lead up to a fight both sides of the story usually match up closely so simple misunderstanding wasn’t the issue. This will inevitably be followed by some version of the following statement: Well of course I was angry, I really thought he/she would have at least . . .
offered to pick up the kids for me that day
had dinner started when I got home
spent 10 minutes with me before turning on the TV
given me a hug and kiss goodbye
acknowledged the occasion with a gift
congratulated me for my promotion at work
This couple has fallen into the trap of unmet expectations. One of the many continuums relationships function along is the space between expectation and gratitude. The more expectations we place on our partner to meet our needs the more likely they are to fall short from time to time. When expectations aren’t met we often feel disappointment and resentment. Over time this can leave you feeling unloved by your mate. Additionally, expectations have a way of canceling out gratitude. We are rarely thankful when our partner merely meets our expectations.
Does this mean that we should do away with expectations? No, not at all. It is perfectly healthy to expect things in your marriage. Things like fidelity, sobriety, and mutual respect are the foundation strong marriages are built on. A previously good marriage that suffers an affair, one or both partners acquiring an addiction, or an erosion of respect for each other will quickly be in trouble. However, when you review the six infractions listed above, do you think any one of those could spell doom for the relationship? Your answer may be no, but when you add the weight of expectations these comparatively small slips can do significant damage.
A two part remedy
1. Expect Less
Create a list of expectations that are absolute, non negotiable, and must be met at all times for you to feel secure in your marriage. There is no set limit, but I would estimate that if your list is getting much past the 8 – 10 item range you may have missed the spirit of the exercise. Once you have the list complete review it with a neutral third party (perhaps a friend or your favorite therapist) for feedback. Make any changes necessary before presenting the final list to your spouse as they present their final list to you. If there is any disagreement you will need to negotiate. Once you are in agreement on the expectations and have come to understand that these are the only absolute requirements to be met each and every day you and your partner can move on to the next step.
2. Request More
Create a list of things your spouse has done, currently does, and could do in the future that make you feel loved. There is no limit to this list, so go ahead and fill the page. Share your completed lists with each other and discuss how and why each item means so much to you. Agree to keep each others’ list in a highly visible place (e.g., your bathroom mirror) and try to do as many of these things for your spouse as you can over the next month. Each time your spouse does something for you from your list be sure to express thanks for their act of love. Over time you will notice that gratitude will replace unmet expectation and your relationship will improve.. The cycle of unmet expectations, hurt feelings, frustrations, and anger will become a cycle of feeling loved, feeling appreciated, and feeling more positively connected to your spouse.
How would a little less disappointment and a little more appreciation effect your relationship?
It’s time to start expecting less and get more love!