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Managing Your Expectations About Marriage

Unrealistic expectations are the root of marital dissatisfaction.

According to psychologist Albert Ellis, we tend to live according to our belief systems. These are the things we hold to be true about the world, ourselves, relationships with other people, and so on. Belief systems are essentially a set of hard facts we live by, and they guide how we act and think. In intimate relationships, they give us standards for how we treat our partner, as well as how we expect to be treated by them. In effect, our belief systems are part of the mindset we bring to a relationship. Some of our beliefs are rational and some are irrational -- those falling in the latter group have no basis in fact and are inconsistent with how the world and people actually behave. An irrational belief might be that each partner should always do what the other wants or sex should always be fantastic.

Our beliefs are what lie beneath our expectations, and our expectations direct how we think about our partner and our marriage, and can affect how we treat them. However, while they initially spring from our beliefs, expectations also have some fluidity. They can change as a result of what we learn about our partner as we get to know them better. We watch how they behave in different situations, and from there we have an idea as to how they will act when faced with other situations. Dr. Ellis would argue that what really changes is our beliefs about our relationship and our partner -- as we change what we believe we then change what we expect. Most people learn early on that their partner will not always do what they would like, and while sex maybe always good, it may not always be fantastic.

Most couples enter marriage with positive expectations about their partner and their future together. Positive expectations have important benefits. They allow us to think positively about our partner, and that leads to better interactions and better feelings toward each other.

However, positive expectations can be a problem when they’re too positive. In our book, “The Retirement Maze”, we found that what people expect about retirement before they retire can affect how well they adjust after they actually leave the workforce. When their expectations are too positive, very often the reality of retirement doesn’t measure up. Consequently, over-optimistic retirees are often not as happy out of their jobs as they thought they would be, and those who feel that way tend to become disenchanted with their new lifestyle. Such disappointments can have harmful consequences. We’re likely to experience a variety of negative emotions, including depression, and these emotions make it hard for us to get motivated because we don’t think we can make our lives more fulfilling. Instead, we might look to get rid of our disappointment by getting out of the situation, such as going back to work.

The same holds for marriage. Exceedingly high expectations can be hard to satisfy, and if we don’t adjust what we expect from our marriage to reflect reality, we run the risk of being continually disappointed. Disappointment in turn can lead to demotivation about building the relationship further, but also to concerns as to whether marrying that person was the right decision. We should also note that, like romantic love, overly positive expectations can be blinding. Because we expect the best, we might initially overlook our partner’s shortcomings, and come to believe later on that he or she isn’t the person we thought we married.

Expectations are also problematic when we use them as a measuring rod that guides our emotions. Here we are referring to wishes and shoulds -- you should do this and not that, you should earn more, I wish you wouldn’t say that, I wish you were a better cook, etc. We might compare our partners’ words and actions to what we expect, and then gauge how we feel or treat them based upon whether or not they measure up. But somewhere and somehow they will eventually fail the test. When that happens, the relationship is fine if we are forgiving and then adjust our expectations so they fit better with how our partner actually behaves. If, on the other hand, our expectations are deeply imbedded and we have difficulty adjusting, we might be perpetually dissatisfied and our partner will be perpetually annoyed and resentful. Such a negative mindset makes it easier for partners to get into arguments, and these can be hard to resolve, because they tend to be about who the partners are as people and not about a specific and fixable issue.

For expectations, it comes down to realism and flexibility. The fact that our expectations can change is important for the long term success of a marriage. Keep an optimistic outlook and a positive perspective, but at the same time keep your eyes and your mind open. If you expect your partner to be a certain way or your relationship should follow a certain path and it doesn’t, you might have to acknowledge that your expectations are unrealistic and you need to make adjustments. Of course, some of our expectations stem from rational beliefs and it’s realistic to think they should be satisfied, such as being treated with respect. Ones that stem from irrational beliefs, on the other hand, those that can’t be satisfied by anyone (e.g., my partner should always treat me with affection) are the problem. When we hold those expectations and use them to judge our partner, they won’t be able to perform to your standards, but then again, neither will you.

Here’s another point to keep in mind to manage our expectations. As we talked about in our previous writing, marriages tend to evolve into a partnership – partners are more like companions rather than lovers. They define their relationship less in terms of romance and more in terms of comfort and security. There’s still love, but it’s not the same as it was when they first met and were head over heels for each other. It’s not necessarily that partners get bored, but love, like any stimulus, loses its power to dazzle over time, so the thrills felt in the first stages won’t be there.

The truth is marital satisfaction has been found by researchers to decline over the years. The most dramatic drop-offs occur within the first few years or so, then again after 7-8 years, and then again when the first child enters their teen years. Of course, not all suffer the same rates and depths of decline -- some may settle at a plateau after a few years, and some may stay happy throughout -- but what we’ve described tends to happen for many couples. Very few will ever again reach the high point of the first few months.

Nevertheless, on the positive side, older couples come to be comfortable with each other and have made the proper adjustments so they’re better equipped to handle the demands of marriage. As we age, we operate less at an emotional level in virtually all of our relationships. With less emotional volatility, our marriages become more stable. Long term marriages may still have the same annoyances and sources of irritation, but these rile partners less, while the benefits of companionship and a history together come to matter more.

Our point is that, while a decline in quality is normal, many older couples feel their marriages are worth keeping. Certainly their relationship is different from the early days; but still they find a level of happiness that is fulfilling. Some, especially those in the early stages of marriage, might not have expected such a transformation and may misinterpret what the changes in their feelings mean. They may think their relationship has run its course, or may think they’ve married the wrong person and moving on is the only option. However, the reality is most long-term relationships follow the same path, so jumping to another relationship in search of love will only get them back to where they are in their current marriage. By acknowledging that a drop-off is likely and that all relationships follow the same path, there’s a better chance your expectations will be grounded in reality. When they’re realistic, couples are less likely to experience disappointments, and more likely to keep a positive perspective about their partner and their marriage.

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