Focus on the Family

When Expectations Meet Reality

by Focus on the Family

Before Cynthia said her marriage vows, she joked with her mother that she could leave out the phrase "for better for worse." She was confident there wouldn't be any "worse." Sam was the perfect man for her. He was emotionally attentive, a dynamo at fixing things around the house, ambitious, funny and caring. He even laughed at her jokes.

Now, five years into marriage, Sam is emotionally distant and says he doesn't have the energy to help with anything around the house, let alone chat with his wife about how she feels. Cynthia sometimes jokes that aliens snuck into her home while Sam was sleeping, took out his brain and replaced it with someone else's. "He's not the man I married!" she quips. However, it's no laughing matter. Her heart is breaking.

There are many things that newlyweds experience and one of them is disillusionment. We know it can be painful and we hope this series of articles can instruct and encourage you to reconnect with the one you married.

Why Isn't Marriage the Way I Thought It Would Be?

The fairytale wedding is over and the realities of married life are sinking in. Are you missing the "happily ever after"?

by Glenn Lutjens

On their honeymoon, Ed and Renee spent hours gazing into each other's eyes — contemplating how they'd spend their next 50 years. They decided to write those plans down as a road map for the future.

But before long, those plans hit several speed bumps.

Ed lost his job.

Renee was diagnosed with diabetes.

Habits that seemed cute at first became annoying.

When they had a son, Renee decided to stay home — which tightened the family purse strings. Ed worked more to compensate, further reducing their time together. When she voiced concern, it only seemed to irritate him.

They still loved each other. But this wasn't how either of them had written the script on their honeymoon.

You might find yourself wondering if your early dreams of marital bliss were more illusion than reality. Why isn't marriage turning out the way you planned?

In premarital counseling, couples often explore their expectations of marriage. But what does that mean? Are expectations the way you think your marriage will look, or the way you want it to look? The two can be very different!

People draw their marital expectations from two wells. One is courtship. If dating was wonderful and starry-eyed, why would you expect marriage to be otherwise? If spending 20 hours a week brings us such joy, you might think, more time together as husband and wife could only be better!

But think back to your courtship. Wasn't it largely a mirage?

What did you do when you didn't want to be alone? You got dressed up and did fun things together. What did you do when you were tired of talking? You went home. How did you deal with financial decisions? You made them on your own.

When you were dating, there were some built-in escape valves in your relationship. Now that you're married, there's no other home to go to. Your spouse's finances are yours, and vice versa.

By its nature, courtship allows a couple to live in denial. Marriage makes that posture much more difficult to maintain.

The other well of marital expectations is the marriage you saw firsthand when you were growing up.

That relationship provided one of two images for you to view. Either the marriage didn't seem worth duplicating, or it did.

Even if the marriage you saw was conflicted and unhappy, you may have believed things would be different for you. Without that hope, the decision to remain single would have seemed pretty appealing. But simply raising your expectations won't make your marriage better than that of your parents. You need to face past hurts and disappointments, perhaps with the help of a counselor or pastor. That may not have the same thrill that romance does, but it makes it more likely that you'll experience a fulfilling and romantic marriage.

On the other hand, you may have been fortunate enough to see a model of marriage worth replicating. For that you can rejoice! But there's a pitfall there, too. You may be locked into thinking that the way you saw Mom and Dad relate is the only healthy way for a marriage to function.

For example, let's say that your parents were both even-tempered; decisions came easily for them. You or your spouse might be more opinionated and need to discuss matters longer. That's okay, even though it's different. There are many styles in marriage that can be healthy.

Parents can affect your marital expectations in other ways, too. That was true with Tom and Jill.

Tom's expectations about marriage weren't being met. Through reading and counseling he finally recognized that those expectations were an effort to cope with a painful childhood. Growing up, he'd often been under his mother's controlling thumb. He'd brought into marriage a vow that he'd never get close enough to his wife to let her control him as Mom had. As a result, he'd never gotten close enough to truly connect with Jill.

Tom had to work through his hurts before he could begin to relate to Jill in a more meaningful way. The two of them met periodically over coffee with a seasoned couple in their church, learning what they might expect in each new stage of marriage.

They still have struggles. But Tom is learning more about God's expectations for their marriage. Unless he depends on God for the ability to love Jill, he doesn't have a prayer to make it happen. He's also learning that by staying true to his marriage, he's growing in ways he never thought possible.

Tom brought his own expectations to marriage, but God had a better idea.

If your expectations about marriage have been unrealistic, it's time to challenge them. But if you do, and still have concerns, consider the possibility that the problem might not be your expectations. You might have a problem in your marriage.

Harboring unrealistic expectations doesn't mean that everything else in a marriage is on track. Your qualms might be slightly off target, but they could be early warning signs about issues that will cause more trouble if you don't resolve them. Talk about them with your spouse in a respectful way; see whether the two of you can address them. If that fails, look to a pastor or counselor for help.

Why Isn't My Wife the Person I Thought She Was?

Now that the wedding's over, your spouse seems different. Are you wondering what happened to the person you used to know?

by Phillip J. Swihart

Was your wife someone different before you got married? Has she changed for the worse over time?

It's much more likely that you saw her through rose-colored glasses while you were dating, and now the glasses are off. And guess what? You're probably not the person she thought you were, either.

Before the wedding, differences tend to seem intriguing, interesting, and attractive. A few months or years into the marriage, however, what seemed so inviting in the semi-fantasy world of dating now seems considerably less than idyllic.

That beautiful angel you married turns out to be a real woman. She has flaws that weren't previously apparent. She may handle things in ways that you find inefficient, and isn't interested in your suggestions about how to do them differently — even though, from your viewpoint, your ways are obviously superior.

You discover to your shock that she has the capacity to express a range of emotions not plumbed in your dating days. You hadn't felt that hot edge of her temper nor the cold, steely glare she now feels free to display.

Perhaps your wife has expectations you never guessed were there. You assumed hers would match yours — and they don't.

How do these "mistakes" occur?

Barbie and Carl were so in love. They wanted to be with each other constantly. Unable to endure the thought of a long, drawn-out courtship, they married within three months of their first meeting.

Barbie was a life-of-the-party sort of girl — a social butterfly. A former high school cheerleader, she was bubbly and happy-go-lucky.

Carl was an A student in college. He had serious career plans in accounting and business. He liked books and challenging discussions about theology and politics. Not having dated many girls, he was in a daze when Barbie was willing to go out with him.

Barbie saw Carl as a responsible, mature man who'd provide stability and security in her life. Carl saw Barbie as the perfect compliment to his otherwise rather pedestrian life.

They quickly decided they were perfect for each other. Surely they'd have no problems that couldn't easily be resolved.

Two years into their marriage, though, there was a deep rift in their relationship. Carl was coming home from the office just wanting to read a book or have some quiet space. He didn't want to talk to Barbie about her day or her shopping plans for the next. At bedtime he didn't feel very amorous.

Barbie seemed frustrated and angry when Carl had no interest in dinner parties or going out dancing with her old friends. Going to church on Sunday mornings was more than enough social life for him.

Carl was angry and frustrated, too. Barbie was chronically late and seemed not to care how annoying this was to him. She was running up bills on the credit card and was irresponsible about paying them. She visited the hair salon frequently, apparently wanting to look very sexy when going out. In his view she was a terrible housekeeper, leaving the place in a mess most of the time.

What had gone so terribly wrong with this relationship? Had Barbie really changed?

Focus on the Family is primarily a donor-funded ministry.

Viewing Your Wife in a New Light

After the wedding, it's common to view your spouse in a new, perhaps disappointing light. Here's what you can do about it.

by Phillip J. Swihart

Carl and Barbie were opposites—and always had been. "Opposites attract" may be a common phenomenon but doesn't necessarily lead to a strong marriage. Far too often what seemed irresistible in the swirl of hormones and emotional highs during a fast courtship turns out to be irritating in the 24/7, "up close and personal" daily life of husband and wife.

The mature and responsible guy seems to become a stiff, nit-picking perfectionist, boring and sexually uninteresting. The girl who appeared to be such a wonderful, bouncy, free spirit now looks like an irresponsible, immature twit with no depth at all. Is that what's happened with your wife? The truth is that she's the same woman you fell so much in love with. But you have changed—stripped of your illusions about her. You're disappointed.

So what should you do?

You might find it helpful to sit down and list the reasons why you chose this particular woman to be your wife. Think of all her attributes that you enjoy and value. Think of yourself as the author of the Song of Solomon, writing about your bride. Shift your focus from the negative and critical to the positive and appreciative.

Then make a date to share these thoughts with her.

If this seems impossible, consider the very real possibility that your marriage is at a crossroads. Disappointment may be making you vulnerable to the attentions of others, who you might imagine would better meet your needs and expectations. Or you may just be resigning yourself to years of regret about your choice of a spouse, bitter that you're obligated to stay in a marriage without any hope of realizing your dreams.

If this describes you, it's past time for you and your wife to seek marriage counseling. Find a Christian professional who won't reinforce the lie that happiness lies just around the corner if only you escape from this mistake and move on to something new.

Your situation is not at all hopeless. But it does require a fresh perspective and some tools to employ in developing a more mature relationship.

Why Isn't My Husband the Person I Thought He Was?

When you were dating, he was attractive and neat. Now he doesn't even pick up after himself. What should you do?

by Glenn Lutjens

When she entered counseling with her husband, Erica had one purpose: getting Jim "fixed."

Jim had fallen into patterns that might work for a single guy, but certainly wouldn't do for a married man. He sometimes worked four extra hours without calling to inform Erica, for instance.

He'd changed so much, she thought. When they'd been dating, she'd figured Jim knew how to handle his finances; at least his car was never repossessed. Now they received monthly surprises from MasterCard, detailing Jim's "toy" purchases. Likewise, his apartment had always seemed neat when Erica visited during their courtship. But now his underwear rarely made it the two yards from the foot of their bed to the hamper.

It's easy to understand why Erica hoped the counselor would take on the challenge of setting her husband straight. She wanted the "old" Jim back.

You might be asking yourself these days, "What happened to the guy I used to know? Did he change, or was I just seeing him differently then?"

The answer is probably, "Yes." That's because both reflect the truth.

Maybe he does act differently now. Your husband probably wanted to seal the deal; he wanted to win your heart. Do you think he would jeopardize losing you by sharing all of his idiosyncrasies with you? Would you do that with him?

Was it deception? It's more like "selective expression." He behaved in a way that he figured would increase your likelihood of saying, "I do." He put his best foot and shiniest shoe forward.

Some of his behavior during those days probably wasn't so deliberate. Thinking of you thrilled his heart during courtship. That type of romantic fire shapes one's actions; loving deeds come easily to one so smitten by romance. You probably felt the same excitement, with your reactions being affected as well.

In Luke 6:32, Jesus conveys this principle with the question, "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?" Reciprocating romantic love comes naturally to most people. Over time, it's common for the romance — and therefore some of the motivation for "good behavior" — to fade somewhat.

Viewing Your Husband in a New Light

After the wedding, it's common to view your spouse in a new, perhaps disappointing light. Here's what you can do about it.

by Glenn Lutjens

It's also true that in many ways your husband hasn't changed, but you now view him differently. There are three reasons for that.

  1. Time. The longer you're married, the more time you have to observe your spouse's behavior. You see things that weren't as noticeable back then.

  2. Distance. You now see him up close. There's no end to the date, no "See you next week." The artificial nature of dating keeps many behaviors concealed. You currently see him when he's hungry and tired. Women may have their "time of month," but men have their "time of day." When his stomach is empty you may see a whole new side of your man you never knew existed.

  3. Desire. You viewed your husband during courtship as you wanted to see him. We tend to construct a person in our minds to match the excitement we want to feel. We mentally create that person in a way that will make us happiest.

So the question becomes, "What do I do now that I've found out he's different from the way I thought he was?"

Debating whether he misrepresented himself or you misread him won't solve anything. Here are three actions you can take.

  1. Choose to love him. We're told in Ephesians 5:32 that marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. There are inadequacies in the church, yet Christ still loves her.

  2. Look at how you may have changed as well. Jesus warns in Matthew 7:1-2 that the yardstick we use to judge others will be used to measure us, too.

  3. Realize that you may have legitimate concerns. Voice them to your husband in a constructive way with the hope that he'll be willing to work toward change — or at least understand your concerns.

Remember Erica? She was surprised when the counselor wasn't willing to "fix" Jim. It wasn't that he didn't recognize the need for changes in Jim's working and spending habits. But the counselor also saw that Erica was mostly trying to control her man.

As Erica worked with the therapist, she saw how she had become less expressive and more withdrawn over time. She began learning ways to communicate her frustrations to Jim in a manner that didn't leave him feeling disrespected.

Erica found that as she and Jim showed more kindness and care toward each other, her feelings toward him deepened. She didn't necessarily feel the same romance as when they courted; but she sensed her love was more mature than it had been before.

Did I Marry the Wrong Person?

Marriage is not primarily about finding the right spouse. It's about being the right person.

by Glenn Lutjens

Movie star Mickey Rooney said, "Marriage is like batting in baseball; when the right one comes along, you don't want to let it go by." It sounds good, until you realize that Mickey was married eight times. He must have had a lot of "good pitches" to swing at!

Not to be outdone, Glynn DeMoss Wolfe, the world record holder of 26 marriages at the time, made a similar comparison. "Marriage is like stamp collecting," he said. "You keep looking to find that rare one."

Both men held what might be called the "needle in a haystack" view of picking a mate. According to this perspective, there's only one spouse with whom you could be happy. That person needs to be found even if it means discarding a spouse who no longer looks right for you.

Significant emotional pain lies in the wake of such a view. You won't find a "wrong needle" clause in the Bible that gives you an "out" if you conclude that your spouse isn't right for you. Instead you'll find in Malachi 2:15, "Do not break faith with the wife of your youth."

Marriage is not primarily about finding the right spouse. It's about being the right person.

When you're single, you experience a range of contentment from low to high. When you marry, that range has the potential to become even wider in both directions. Greater contentment—or discontentment—can take place than in your single years.

If you and your loved one were unhappy as singles and expected marriage to fulfill your lives, you probably were greatly disappointed as your level of contentment dropped even lower. But if you sensed meaning and purpose in your lives individually and wanted to share them in a lifetime commitment, you likely experienced an increase in contentment. You might call this the Mine Theory of Mate Selection. You either find the "land mine" or the "gold mine" in marriage.

If you entered marriage hoping to finally find happiness in your mate, you probably didn't find it. Like a carpenter who may first have to remove the floorboards in order to shore up the joists underneath, you may first need to find contentment individually.

During courtship, people are often sure they've found the "gold mine." Both spouses-to-be tend to get excited about this wonderful, new relationship. The fireworks of romance help them act kinder, more selflessly, and more empathetically than they might when the fire fades.

We tend to fill in the gaps regarding the person we love. We assume during courtship that since he's willing to sit and listen to our feelings about life, he'll show the same concern after marriage when we want to talk about our frustrations. When he doesn't, we assume we married the wrong person.

In reality, he probably was not as wonderful as you thought he was before you married. On the other hand, he's probably not as terrible as you might now be thinking.

In his classic work, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm declares, "To love somebody is not just a strong feeling—it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were just a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever."

Dr. James Dobson conveys a similar message in his book Romantic Love: "You see, [a couple's] love is not defined by the highs and lows, but is dependent on a commitment of their will. Stability comes from this irrepressible determination to make a success of marriage and to keep the flame aglow regardless of the circumstances."

When the two of you walked down the aisle, each of you became the right person for the other. Yes, you may look back and second-guess your reasons. But you entered an arena in which learning to truly love someone takes a lifetime.

Is your spouse perfect? Not a chance. Welcome to the human race.

That's what Larry and Linda learned.

Larry no longer felt the excitement he had when he and Linda were dating. She didn't speak to him as sweetly as in the old days. And if her spending habits continued, the two of them would end up in the poorhouse. Larry concluded that he'd made a mistake by marrying Linda.

When they entered counseling, Larry assumed Linda was not the woman for him. But he came to understand that even though Linda wasn't perfect, learning to love her was helping him grow as a spouse and become more lovable.

Larry might not have married Linda, knowing what he now knows about her. Yet he recognizes that beyond human decisions, God somehow works His purposes into the equation.

Larry no longer views marriage with a "needle in a haystack" mentality. He considers Linda as the one he's promised to love both in sickness and in health.

How Can I Change My Spouse?

Before you married, you saw shadows of irritating behaviors, but figured you'd get used to them over time. Well, you haven't.

by Glenn Lutjens

A psychologist named Dr. Negri once decided his fiancée needed to change. Figuring he'd get an early start, he set out to remake the woman before they married. In therapy sessions he attempted to mold his patient, 30 years younger, into the perfect spouse.

After treatment was completed, they married. But the therapy seemed to fail as soon as he got the wedding ring on her finger.

She didn't want to wash the dishes or vacuum. Dr. Negri often had to watch their baby because his wife refused. The couple ended up in divorce court.

The psychologist said that he made one mistake when he took on the transformation. He forgot to do therapy on himself.

By now you may have noticed certain "flaws" in your spouse. Before you married, you saw shadows of irritating behaviors, but figured you'd get used to them over time—or you'd get your spouse to change.

Well, you haven't.

There are primarily two reasons why you might want to change your spouse.

  1. You want to see your spouse replicate your actions. If you squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube, or put the toilet seat cover down, you probably want your spouse to do so, too. It's easy to approach differences with the attitude that your way is the right way.
  2. You want your spouse to meet your needs. The more needy you are, the more likely you have a detailed agenda of what you want those changes to look like.

Which of these reasons applies to you?

Maybe you want your spouse to be like you. But consider the truth that many factors account for the differences between mates—family background, gender, cultural variations, temperament. God could have created clones if He wanted spouses to be carbon copies of each other. Instead, He wants you and your unique qualities to work with your spouse's unique characteristics.

It's a bit like vision. Close one eye; what happens? You lose depth perception cues. That's because you're viewing things from only one angle. When you look with two eyes, the slightly different vantage points of each eye turn your vision into a 3-D experience.

Instead of trying to make your mate "see things your way," you can benefit from having different perspectives. If you and your spouse view a situation from slightly different vantage points, you can blend those views and see things more accurately than either of you could individually.

Do you want your spouse to change in order to meet your needs? It's not unreasonable to want your needs met. But it is unreasonable to see your spouse as your private genie.

In Philippians 2:4 Paul says, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." Are you as concerned about responding to your spouse's interests as you are with how your interests can be served?

There's nothing wrong with wanting to see your spouse change and grow. People are like trees; if we're not growing, we're probably dead. But you can only change you!

That doesn't mean there are no limits to what's appropriate in a marriage. You don't need to accept abusive behavior. Physical aggression toward a spouse is never right. Name-calling and belittling words also violate the God-given value to be reflected toward a mate.

What if you want change for reasons that aren't selfish?

In an effort to coax constructive change in a spouse, many resort to manipulation. They leave pamphlets or books around in the hope that the spouse will get the hint. Don’t take that route.

If you have a concern, take ownership of your feelings. Voice them honestly and respectfully. Sometimes expressing them in a note can reduce defensiveness and cut through communication difficulties.

Consider the case of Bill and Sue. For the first few years of their marriage, Bill saw their differences as a threat to his "headship." He tried unsuccessfully to "get her in line."

Finally Bill realized that his job was not to change Sue. He tried voicing his concerns constructively to her: "I know that there's been a lot going on for you lately, but I feel frustrated when clothes are left lying around the apartment. Is it something I can help you with?"

When Bill gave Sue the freedom to see issues from her viewpoint, he found that in the areas that mattered most she was willing to make adjustments. He also realized that many changes he'd thought necessary were not.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources addressing the early years of marriage

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