For the first several years of marriage, I desperately wanted my husband, Chris, to be a mind reader. I wanted him to know how I felt and what I needed, but I didn’t want to have to tell him. He was my husband, after all, so I expected him to just know. When I walked in the door from a hard day of teaching 8-year-olds, he should have known I was tired and discouraged. I wanted him to study me, see the signs on my face and in my body language, and then sweep in and save the day. After his profession of support and never-ending love, he should have said, “Let’s go eat some Mexican food. Will that make you feel better?”
But what would actually happen is that I would walk in the door distraught from teaching two dozen unruly third-graders and frustration would set in when I would have to tell him how I felt. I didn’t want to have to tell him I was ready to quit or that I just didn’t have it in me to open a can of soup. He should have known all of this. We were married, for crying out loud.
I’ve yet to meet a married couple who didn’t struggle with unspoken expectations at some point. We all do it. Every single last one of us. We expect our spouse to know just what we need, and it places an unrealistic burden on him or her and can breed resentment. This notion of mind reading is a bit ridiculous. I was the queen of this type of thinking, so please don’t hear condemnation. I want you to hear hope: By learning to talk about expectations in your relationship, you can begin to establish a more satisfying marriage.
The problem with our expectations is that we’re not always aware of them. They’re often unconsciously formed through our past relationships and experiences, and we may have never stopped to examine or verbalize them. So how do you identify the unspoken expectations you have for your marriage? One way is to take note if you find yourself angry, frustrated and disappointed on a regular basis. Then honestly ask yourself what expectations may be driving those negative emotions.
It’s also helpful to get feedback from your spouse. He or she has a front-row seat to your emotional patterns and can help you recognize them. If that’s not a step you can take right now, seek counsel from wise, godly people or a professional counselor. An outside individual might help you see the blind spots in your own marital vision and pinpoint any problematic expectations.
Once you’ve identified an expectation that’s causing conflict in your marriage, it’s wise to pause and consider whether this expectation is realistic. Keep in mind that what may be realistic for someone else may not be realistic for your spouse. Let’s say your father never called a repairman and fixed everything himself. Is it realistic to place that expectation on your husband, even though he may not have the knowledge, let alone the time, to complete such tasks?
Chris and I had different upbringings. I came from a “get it yourself” kind of family, and so I expect everyone to do just that. Chris’s mom doted on him because she is a truly amazing servant. I cannot possibly show love through service the way she does. But I learned how to serve my husband in a way that was realistic for me and also showed him love. But it didn’t just happen. I had to work at it.
Spell it out
Expectations need to be laid out for discussion. When you encounter resentment or frustration, sit down with your spouse and discuss your expectations. After you’ve identified the problem areas, it’s important to begin an ongoing dialogue. Talk about whether your expectations for each other are realistic, and if so, how you can work together to fulfill them.
These conversations took away part of our romance for me because, quite frankly, I wanted Chris to pursue me to the point that he could anticipate my every emotional need. But now I’ve learned to help Chris connect the dots. He’s a thinker, and I tend to be more of a feeler, so when we have conflict, he processes through his head while I process with my heart. And that means tears. When the tears begin, what I really need is for him to comfort me, hold me and tell me he loves me. I assumed he knew that, but I was wrong. During one of our first marital conflicts, I started crying; Chris just stood and stared at me. I couldn’t believe he didn’t comfort me with a hug.
But I said nothing and suffered disappointment for years. Finally one day, I asked him, “When I’m crying and upset, can you just hold me?” He said, “Yes, of course. Why didn’t you tell me that’s what you needed?”
What if marital expectations are clear and realistic but your spouse still lets you down? This phenomenon occurs because we all tend to expect our imperfect spouse to act perfectly.
I believe that God intends for spouses to walk through life together, carrying each other when they can’t walk alone and spurring each other on as they take steps that are exciting and sometimes scary. But I don’t believe that God intended spouses to meet all of each other’s needs. (That’s Jesus’ job.)
Chris and I have experienced a mixture of conflict, discouragement, disillusionment and betrayal in our marriage. One such struggle was when we decided to bring children into the world. Thankfully, we were both ready at the same time. However, God’s timing didn’t match ours. For nearly four years, we waited for that positive line to show up on the pregnancy test. The waiting period was brutal for me. My heart so longed to be a mother.
While I was growing more impatient with each passing month, my husband was not. He was content, trusting that God’s timing was best. Sure, he wanted to be a father, but he didn’t wrestle with the delay of parenthood like I did. I expected him to struggle, too, and actually wanted him to share in my pain. But instead, he often tried to encourage me and lift me out of my pit of sadness. That made me mad sometimes because misery does love company. I expected him to be despondent with me.
While waiting to become parents, Chris and I were able to talk through the hurt I felt and let it be OK that he wasn’t in the depths of despair with me. Basically, I had to give Chris grace and let the Holy Spirit comfort me.
Today Chris and I are closer than ever to our Savior and to each other because we’ve learned to talk through the hurt and misunderstandings of unmet expectations. When that doesn’t work perfectly because neither of us is perfect, I’ve learned to trust Jesus to fill in the gaps — and He ultimately meets my expectations and more.
Cindy Beall is the author of Rebuilding a Marriage Better Than New.
What unmet expectations do you need to discuss with your spouse? Look over this list of areas where disappointments often occur. If any of these trigger negative emotions in you, it might be time for a heartfelt conversation.
- Frequency of sex: Is your spouse meeting your need for physical intimacy?
- Affirming words: Do her words build you up or tear you down?
- Physical affection: Does he show affection daily and not just when he desires sex?
- Quality conversation: Does she seem distracted by technology? Do you need more face-to-face discussions?
- Household duties: Do you desire more help around the house?
- Spiritual leadership: Does he lead without belittling you or ignoring your voice?
- Finances: Are you satisfied with the way you and your spouse spend and save money? Do you need to make changes?
- Physical appearance: Does he take care of himself in such a way that brings you pride or satisfaction?
- Parenting support: Are you and your spouse a united front? Do you feel supported in your parenting decisions?