We all deal with expectations. We enter a restaurant and expect to be served a meal. They expect us to pay for our meal.
When we enter marriage we also bring expectations about how our spouse will behave and how things will work out.
In “The Third Option” Pat Ennis, explains that every marriage goes through three important stages, largely because of these expectations. Understanding these stages and getting through them are crucial for a healthy marriage.
•The Romantic Stage: We get engaged, then married. Ennis explains “we are full of high expectations.” We're on our best behavior; so is our spouse. We both assume our spouse will always act this way, and the honeymoon will last forever.
•The Disillusionment Stage: Ennis explains “expectations are assumptions about what other people should do.” When our mate stops acting like we assumed they should, “we feel cheated and angry” because “unmet expectations feel like rejection — they aren't but they feel like it.”
This is a high-risk stage for couples. Unfortunately, many people assume that, because things didn't work as they expected, “that they just don't love each other anymore.” Instead of working through the problems their expectations created, they give up. The better answer is to go to the next stage.
•The Mature Love Stage: Couples who grow together begin to question their expectations and start to form a deeper sense of love for each other. This means dealing with expectations in a four-step process:
1. Becoming conscious of our unconscious expectations. Did you assume your wife would cook like your mom? That your husband would cut the lawn like your dad? That birthdays would be big deals, with cakes and parties, just like when you were a kid? Ennis suggests every time we start to get angry, we should ask ourselves: “What did I expect?” You can only deal with expectations you are aware of.
2. Making our unrealistic expectations realistic. Now it's honesty time: Was your expectation realistic? Many expectations come from fairy tales, soap operas, song lyrics and movies, not real life. Even if your expectation came from your family of origin, was your family healthy or dysfunctional? If it was healthy, check with your parents; they probably needed time to learn how to adjust to each other after they were first married, too. If your family was dysfunctional, where else can you look for reality? Ennis asks whether we're “willing to give up our childish fantasies” or admit our expectations are unrealistic.
3. Talking about our unspoken expectations. Ennis warns, “We cannot assume our spouse is a mind reader,” we need to talk about our expectations. This needs to be in the context of respect and an understanding that there are no “right” or “wrong” expectations, as long as they are agreed on by the couple.
4. Settling our unsettled expectations. Ennis emphasizes “Expectations are only valid when they have been mutually agreed upon.” Joint expectations also tend to be the most workable ones. Talking about assumptions and expectations allows couples to better understand how each sees the future and what each needs to feel loved in the present.
This process eventually turns expectations into hopes. You'll still hope your spouse will do certain things, but it's no longer demanded. And, if it's not done, you won't feel rejected and worry that your marriage is in jeopardy.
Getting the unconscious, unrealistic, unspoken and unsettled expectations out of your relationship will minimize disappointments, eliminate many potential arguments and allow you to spend more emotional energy on having fun together.