Do We Demand Too Much From Our Partners?

The price of unrealistic expectations.

Posted Aug 27, 2018

I treated a woman who complained that her husband was doing poorly at work; apparently, he made less money than she believed he was capable of. To be sure her husband was not functioning very efficiently, but he made it clear that he “hated” his job. Following college graduation, he said that he had planned to pursue an entirely different career, but immediately married and had children. He claimed he was then trapped and could not afford to explore his options. The concept of being trapped was something this man was familiar with having grown up with a father who was unhappy in his career and saw no way out. My assessment was that this man did not have the “ability” to achieve any more at his current position than he had because he did not have the desire to do so. His wife countered that her husband was a “smart” man—smarter than most of his peers who made much more money than he did. She therefore asserted that he did have the ability to achieve more. She saw him as lazy. She was very angry and disappointed in him but the more she demonstrated these feelings the angrier and more emasculated he felt. Interestingly, this man did not admit to a lack of ability. His defense was that he was doing well enough and that his wife was “greedy.”

A man complained that his wife was “lazy.”  He wanted her to get up early in the morning as he did and charge into life. This man was a very successful attorney and believed in the benefits of hard work and persistence. Nevertheless, I determined that his wife had limited intellectual and emotional resources—perhaps even a learning disability that was never treated—and did not have the ability to function at the level her husband demanded. I worried that the more he pushed her the further she would deteriorate. The husband saw me as supporting his wife’s laziness.  

A woman had an affair. She claimed that she did so because her husband refused to show her that he cared for her both emotionally and intellectually. She said that her lover was effusive and always touched her with affection. He consistently told her how attractive she was and that he followed by wanting to be with her as much as possible—all things her husband failed to do. The husband was devastated by the affair. He in fact cried and said that he loved his wife very much and that he was confused by her behavior. When the wife witnessed this, she became even angrier and screamed: “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” While the wife apparently stopped her affair, the husband soon retreated to his old noncommunicative ways and the affair was renewed. It was clear to me that the husband was raised in a family of distancers and poor problem solvers. They were physically close but showed little affection and were avoiders of uncomfortable material. As a result, this man was not able to routinely demonstrate to his wife how much he truly cared for her. Only in crisis did he acknowledge these feelings. Without a great deal of treatment, I found the husband to be incapable of giving his wife what she claimed to need in their marriage.

The dissatisfied partners illustrated were justified in their complaints. None of their so-called insufficient spouses were functioning well enough to please themselves or their mates. But in my estimation, none were failing out of malicious intent. The husband in the first case hated his job and could barely stand to get up on week-day mornings—he was somewhat depressed. He was raised by a father who was chronically unhappy with his life choices and demonstrated poor problem-solving ability; the wife in the second case had limited abilities and was clearly depressed—her parents failed to address her limitations and she spent most of her life developmentally behind her peers; in the last case the husband was handicapped by his history as well. All of this begs the questions: 1. Why do we expect something from those who cannot give it to us?  2. Why do we persist in trying to get something that we have not been able to get no matter how hard we have tried? And 3. Why do we get so angry, hurt, and disappointed when our unrealistic ventures fail to pay off?

I have found that many of us tend to look for something in others that we were deprived of in our formative years and when they fail to provide it—for whatever reasons—we react. Simple enough. But why then do we keep trying to extract something in the constant face of failure? Some would have you believe that the answer is because we want or need it bad enough. Perhaps, but I sense that because it was not given to us in our youth it is somewhat foreign to us. It becomes something in the air; something idealistic and mystical rather than something reality-based. If this is true than the “fantasy” of getting what we want may be more comfortable than getting it—a frustrating cycle that ends in nothingness. This might explain why we choose people who give off signs that they are incapable of giving us what we want. We blame them for our deprivations, losses, and for our pain as if reparation was at their disposal if they would only work harder. We have chosen them to keep our fantasies alive, not to achieve anything more than that. We in a sense, project our failures and frustrations onto the incapable rather than own them. And so, we keep failing.