If you understand this one issue, you can head a lot of conflict right from the get-go.
If you were asked to name an issue that’s most likely to make a marriage fail, you might hazard a guess that it’s one of a number of things: bad communication, money, sex, or two people growing apart. Studies show that, if you named any of these reasons, you aren’t far off. At least, you’d be partially right.
But those issues aren’t actually what cause the break up. They are symptoms of a deeper problem.
I know this because as a pastor I regularly counsel couples who are preparing for marriage, as well as couples whose marriages have hit a rough patch. In pre-marriage sessions, we spend a lot of time talking about potential problem areas. We talk about money, sex, and healthy communication. We talk about the importance of praying together, learning to navigate who does what household chore, and preparing for the possible arrival of a child into the family someday. We talk about it all.
What I make really clear during our talks is that no matter how much we talk and anticipate the necessary skills to build a successful marriage, no couple can be totally prepared. It’s a great help to look ahead and solve a potential disagreement before it happens, but we can’t always predict what will set off an argument. The deeper questions, though, aren’t about whether presents should be opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, how the money will be handled, or even how to solve conflicts. The really important questions are: Why do you have arguments? When and why do you feel dissatisfied in your marriage? What is it that causes two people to lose their commitment to each other? The answer to these questions tends to the be same: Unmet expectations. It’s the biggest, often unnamed, reason that marriages struggle.
Let’s say that, because my wife is a heavenly creature who loves me and makes delicious food for me, I come to expect that every evening when I return home from work I’ll be greeted with a gourmet meal. Suppose, further, that we then have children who have totally changed our daily schedule, or my wife has an unexpected errand, or lost track of time, or even that she simply went out to visit with a friend at dinner time. No meal for me and I’m scrounging for leftovers. Here’s the point, though … I never deserved that meal and have no right to expect it. She prepares it because she loves me, but if she doesn’t, it’s not a cause for me to become upset, because it was always a gift, an act of love. My wife isn’t my hired chef. It’s so common, though, that in marriage we conjure false expectations and then trick ourselves into dissatisfaction when they aren’t met. The examples are endless. I thought marriage was going to be this but it turned out to be that. I thought my spouse would fulfill my every need, but it turns out he or she can’t.
It isn’t that we shouldn’t have any expectations for marriage, but they should be realistic and healthy. Marriage brings happiness and satisfaction and we should expect it to be a beautiful union that matures and grows ever more lovely over time, but if we expect it to be like Romeo and Juliet, well, we all know how that turned out. There will be money issues. Kids will cause stress. Arguments will happen. We need to remember: My spouse will not be perfect. My spouse will at some point disappoint me. My spouse will not always understand me. My spouse may never change that annoying habit.
Honestly, I don’t think so much about the rare instances when my own wife doesn’t meet my expectations. [In case you’re wondering, I’m a convert and now a married Catholic priest.] I worry a lot more about the opposite scenario. In our 18 years together, I cannot even begin to explain the ways I’ve let her down. Sure, I can look back, catalog a number of mistakes I’ve made, and list them on the internet for all the world to see. For starters, I’ve been selfish, short-tempered, and unreasonable. I cannot, however, detail the myriad other ways I’ve fallen short of her expectations because I might not even realize where I went wrong. Maybe I failed to say the perfect thing when she needed it or didn’t notice she’d had a hard day and offer consolation. I suspect I’ve made her happy, but certainly not perfectly happy, and that I’ve been a good husband and father, the best I can be, but for some mysterious reason deep within myself I haven’t been good enough. The point is, my flaws don’t make our marriage a failure. We don’t expect each other to be perfect.
The most damaging assumption we can make going into marriage is that a spouse will fix everything, fulfill every emotional need, and never, ever fail to be exactly what is needed at every moment. We are human beings and we let each other down. In marriage we commit to a real, living relationship in all its glorious messiness. That’s why it’s great. Two people get to change and grow together, to fall into the gravity of love and circle each other like the Earth and Moon. A husband and wife are two satellites in orbit and each moment is a cosmic dance.
So what should we reasonably expect of marriage? For it to be a glorious adventure together until death do us part.
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