We have all been told that expectations of marriage are frequently too high, resulting in disappointments and unhappiness (psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-it-together/201810/how-expectations-affect-ones-happiness-in-marriage). Social science research has outlined various reasons for that situation. These include the fact that fewer of us reach out to friends, extended family, and neighbors than ever before (Finkel, 2017). In prior decades, it was much more common to call upon a network of people when we needed emotional support or just relief of loneliness. A second possible reason is the false sense of community that we get from social media, which cannot replace the emotional connection that occurs when we are physically present with individuals that care about us.
What are the most basic problematic expectations?
First of all, too many of us assume that finding the right person will make us happy (Perel, 2017). This is such a common assumption that many of us are not even aware that it is an expectation of ours. However, if we stop to think about it, we realize that we are the only person who can make ourselves happy. A good partner certainly enhances our lives but cannot be expected to create contentment for us. Secondly, we too often expect that not much effort will be required to keep things peaceful and running smoothly in our relationships. It is a general consensus among couples’ therapists that being happily married, or a happily living together couple, requires a lot of effort and adjustment.
What is reasonable to expect from a committed partnership or marriage?
At the most basic level, it is perfectly reasonable to expect kindness and respect. Psychologist Donald Baucom conducted research at the University of North Carolina’s Couples’ Lab and found that when expectations are too low, unacceptable situations result. These findings were particularly relevant to individuals in abusive relationships. Those who continue to tolerate emotional, verbal, or physical abuse will likely continue to be treated badly.
Beyond that basic point, there are six reasonable expectations of married (or living together/committed) couples. These expectations are based upon decades of research by couples’ therapists.
1. Expect that your partner will try to work out your differences or disagreements together.
You should not be ignored or avoided when you have a complaint, particularly if it is a repetitive problem. The need to talk things through will probably involve learning some new communication skills so that your arguments will be constructive rather than hurtful. For excellent tips on how to argue in constructive ways, see the classic self-help book by John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999).
2. Expect that your partner will share responsibilities with you.
These may include chores in the home, child-care, and financial responsibilities. It doesn’t really matter who does what, as long as you have an agreement that works for both partners. It does not need to be a 50-50 split either. It is actually advised not to approach responsibilities from the mindset of willingness to do “my half”; it is better to assume that you will do more than your half. Your partner is advised to do the same. In terms of financial responsibilities, the issue may be one of sticking to an agreed budget, regardless of who earns what.
3. Expect that it’s okay and healthy to be honest about sex.
Sexual expectations, such as those about the type of sexual behavior or the frequency, should be talked about together. It’s the difference in partner preferences that usually causes unhappiness, and yet differences are actually very common (McCarthy, 2014). It is helpful for both partners to be open about what they want and to be willing to work out a mutually agreeable plan.
4. Expect that you will give each other the benefit of the doubt.
When misunderstandings occur, assume the best intentions from the other person and expect s/he will do the same for you. With this premise, it is easier to let go of minor offenses. More serious issues should of course be talked through. In those cases, be willing to give and to accept a statement of regret or apology, and to make amends as needed. The goal is to minimize the energy spent on minor misunderstandings and save the effort for the things that are really important.
5. Expect that while many problems are solvable, many are not.
Examples of unsolvable problems include: when one partner wants children and the other does not, or strongly different preferences about where to live. According to the Gottmans’ research, roughly 69% of ongoing couple conflicts relate to unsolvable problems. Accepting these situations as perpetual can reduce the frustration of trying to solve them, and lead to finding ways to manage them.
6. Expect to be friends!
It is reasonable to expect to have fun together and be able to laugh with each other. Whether it’s in the form of relaxation or adventure, taking some time for just the two of you builds trust. As the level of mutual trust increases, the ability to resolve conflicts improves (Gottman, 1999). Besides the problem-solving benefits of having fun together, it makes all of the effort worthwhile. If you’re not adding some joy to each other’s lives, what’s the point of being together?
Finkel, E. (2017). The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. Dutton Press.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Penguin Random House.
McCarthy, B. & McCarthy, E. (2014). Rekindling Desire . (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge.
Perel, E. (2017). The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Harper Publishing.