Expect Less, Get
Neutralize frustrations that are eroding your relationship.
One trait happy couples in my study share is that they have learned how to have realistic expectations of their spouses and marriages. To take your marriage from good to great, it’s essential to transform unrealistic expectations—the ones that rarely get met and then cause you frustration, anger, sadness, hurt, and other negative emotions— into more realistic versions that will be met.
Contrary to popular belief, the biggest reason marriages fail is not conflict, lack of communication, or sexual incompatibility. It’s frustration. The first step to achieving a truly great marriage is to defuse the frustration that is eating away at the love and happiness in your relationship. Frustration creates tension that builds and eventually explodes. Enough of these explosions and you’ve got a broken marriage. Where does this frustration come from? Unrealistic expectations! By having realistic expectations of love, men, women, and relationships in general, and then realistic personal expectations between you and your spouse specifically, you can dramatically improve your marriage.
In the first part of this chapter, we will look at the ten most common myths about marriage, and the reality behind each one. The simple act of dispelling myths that drive your expectations is a necessary step toward arriving at more realistic expectations and reducing marital tension. By learning what relationship research tells us about how men and women relate, behave, and think, you can approach your marriage with fresh, unbiased knowledge. Whenever I share the scientific research that debunks these common myths in my classes, therapy sessions, or workshops, people are always astounded to discover that what they’ve believed all along about the other gender, love, or marriage is just not supported by scientific facts and rigorous research. After you get rid of relationship expectations that are based on myths, rather than rooted in reality, you will see immediate, significant improvements in your marriage. I’ve seen this so many times, I no longer doubt it.
In the second part of the chapter, you will examine the specific expectations you and your spouse have of each other and your marriage. I present a number of exercises that will ask you to dig deep within you and ask yourself, “What are my top personal expectations for how my marriage should work?” I will help you identify your own personal expectations from a list of the sixteen most common personal expectations of married couples that came out of my long-term study. You and your spouse will discover what is most important to each of you in your ideal marriage. You will learn how to prevent disappointment by sharing your personal expectations with your spouse so that each of you has a clear understanding of what is important to the other. My own research shows that spouses who can identify each other’s personal expectations experience greater happiness over time.
When one couple from my study, Timbra and Alan, were asked at year seven what advice they would give to other young newlyweds, their answer was very typical of many happy couples:
timbra: Know what your spouse wants and expects—and communicate that to each other. You can avoid a lot of fighting that way.
alan: (laughing) I’ve known her since we were fourteen. You’d think I’d have a clue by now. But seriously, she’s right. We really know what our limitations are and what each other’s dreams and expectations are. The only surprises we have in our marriage are the good ones.
These two are typical of the happy couples in my study who have reasonable expectations of themselves, their spouses, and their relationships—and really “get” each other. My research continues to confirm that happy couples who have such reasonable expectations experience less frustration in their marriages, and more affection, closeness, respect, trust, passion, fun, and overall well-being and satisfaction than their peers. Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?
How Frustration Sabotages Marital Happiness
Frustration is tension that builds up until it eventually erupts into disappointment, anger, or unhappiness. Frustration occurs when our expectations aren’t met; we think something should occur or unfold in one way, and then it doesn’t go as we planned.
Psychologists think of relationship expectations much like a play’s script. Each of us is given a script early on in life for how we should act in relationships. And from this script, we also have very strong assumptions about how others should perform or respond to us. These “should” statements are relationship expectations. If our love partner meets our “should” statements or relationship expectations, then we are very happy. If he or she doesn’t meet these expectations, we become frustrated.
Many of us have been taught by the media, friends, and family that our spouse should be everything to us. We learn that when two people find each other and get married, their lives should be forever intertwined. We expect our spouse to be our best friend, an excellent parent, a great lover, a good provider, a loving caregiver, a willing volunteer, physically fit, healthy, sensitive, generous, well-liked, open-minded, polite, intelligent, with similar interests, and happy to spend leisure time with us. Phew—and that’s just for starters! No one can be all that, so we really need to learn to change our expectations. When such unrealistic expectations are not met, we will feel frustrated. Bottom line: Frustration takes the fun and passion out of your relationship, and can be very corrosive over time.
Instead, we need to have expectations that are realistic. Let me give you a concrete example so you can see how it works. A wife has had a run-in with her teenage son after he got home from school and is feeling as though she didn’t handle it well. She wants her husband’s input and reassurance, and she’s also realized that the boy should hear from his father. The boy is holed up in his room, and she’s seething. Here is her unrealistic expectation: that her husband will be 100 percent available to her when he walks in the door, because she’s done the heavy lifting, and now it’s his turn. She’s looking for superman. You can see what’s coming, right? When her husband arrives home, maybe he’s had his own rough day and needs her support, and is desperate for a few moments to unwind and decompress. His aloof behavior doesn’t signal that he’s unconcerned or uninvolved, but she interprets it that way and is infuriated and frustrated by his seeming lack of attention to her needs and those of the family. Now let’s rewind her scenario starting from a realistic expectation: that he will be caring, responsive, and a good listener once she has given him the heads-up about the situation, asked him directly for his help, and the two of them have blocked out a mutually convenient half hour before dinner to discuss the situation together. By expecting less, she gets more. The less you expect—when those expectations are potentially excessive and unrealistic—the more satisfaction you will get out of your marriage.
John and Sue-Ellen, one of the happy couples in my study, are a good example of this. They talk a lot about eliminating unrealistic expectations when asked why they are happy in their marriage together.
John and Sue-Ellen are both doctors who first met in medical school. They were both academically driven and competitive with each other, and made good study partners. They married eight years after they met. Sue-Ellen quit her job once their first child was born. “When I used to fantasize about marrying John, I saw myself with a stethoscope in one hand and a pacifier in the other,” she said. “I expected that we’d share parenting and I’d have a successful career too.” The reality turned out differently. Although Sue-Ellen enjoyed being home with her son, she describes feelings of loss, guilt, and self-judgment. “I had invested so much time and money into medical school, and here I was, singing along with Elmo on Sesame Street. I think my dad, even with his traditional values, wondered what the hell I was doing with my life.” It took several years for her to come to terms with the fact that she was a stay-at-home mom with an MD.
In one interview, John nods in agreement when Sue-Ellen says, “Don’t expect that marriage or life is perfect. You need to understand that life is not a movie.” Sue-Ellen, especially, had idealistic views of marriage and how their lives together would look. In the early years, those idealized expectations created a lot of frustration and disappointment. Eventually, she made peace with her life, and she and John could relax and really appreciate the sweet family and home they had created together. They have an extremely happy and stable marriage that has lasted nearly twenty years.
Stop Believing the Myths behind Unrealistic Expectations
It’s not easy to let go of your general beliefs about relationships. Some of them have been ingrained in you since childhood. You’ve picked up impressions about love, relationships, and marriage from movies, TV, and romance novels. You’ve formed opinions by observing the ups and downs in the relationships of your parents, family, and friends. And you’ve probably learned a thing or two about love firsthand. You may have read self-help books and highlighted key passages that rang true. And if nothing else, you’ve gleaned tips from watching Oprah and reading advice columns. Without even realizing it, you cling to strong opinions you’ve acquired about love and marriage that aren’t necessarily supported by science.
I always tell people they can do themselves a big favor by looking at the scientific facts. The reason is twofold. First, myth-based beliefs affect how we evaluate our marital experiences and our spouses. For example, if you really believe that passion never dies, but you’re in year five of marriage and it’s just not that exciting anymore, you might draw the conclusion that something is seriously wrong with your marriage. You might get angry at your spouse for not doing his or her part in making your relationship better. You might even feel frustrated or lonely as you compare your relationship to your best friend’s marriage. She’s squeezed up against her spouse at the restaurant as they share an inside joke together, while you sit next to your husband reading the menu in silence! But if you understand the truth behind the myth—that marriage “blahs” are typical and can be easily remedied—you can calmly say, “Hey, my marriage isn’t in trouble. This is normal.” As I say to my patients, knowledge is power. When you understand what’s really going on in your relationship, you have the power to change it. Knowing research-based facts helps to ease the frustration, which in turn leads to being able to approach your relationship in a way that will bring more satisfaction and happiness in your marriage.
Second, myths may not only affect our perceptions, but also our behavior in relationships. Take conflict, for instance. Let’s say you think fighting is harmful. If you fear conflict and the effect it may have on your relationship, you’re more likely to clam up when things bother you. You may never tell your spouse what annoys or irritates you, like when he chews with his mouth open, or she won’t stop talking about her friends. The next thing you know, you develop the habit of staying silent, and you get all bottled up, tense, and secretive about your feelings. Things will build up inside you until one day you’re slamming pots and pans around in the kitchen, just steaming about the latest annoyance, and your spouse has no clue why you’re behaving like this. The alternative: Change your expectation about fighting in marriage. Understand that some amount of conflict is normal in marital relationships, and figure out new ways to talk about your feelings without any fear. What a relief!
We are bombarded in the media with myths and misconceptions about love and marriage that are repeated as fact, but are unfortunately firmly rooted in fiction. In contrast, research that is conducted with large, diverse groups of people on relationships is much more valid. Don’t forget that the average experience of the average person depicts most of us and our marriage and love concerns. However, as you read the research findings in this book, don’t worry if you don’t fit the norm or average. It is simply a law of science that big generalizations from reputable research studies only apply to about 90 or 95 percent of us at any one time. There are no true “universal laws” about relationships that fit all of the people, all of the time. So sometimes you’ll have an “aha” moment and a finding will really ring true to your own situation, but other times you may think, “Wow, that doesn’t represent me at all.” As you read the research, stay open- minded, figure out where you fit, and remember that we all have different families, backgrounds, and values—and these shape our marital experiences in unique ways.
You can reduce the frustration that may be sabotaging your marriage by examining which of your expectations about the opposite sex, love, and relationships are based on myths—and are therefore unrealistic—and which ones jibe with scientific research findings. Here’s a fun way to find out how much you really know about marriage. Take the following quiz.
Let’s dig down and explore the science-based facts that debunk each of these ten myths, one by one. Remember, each time you break down an assumption or myth-based belief, you are creating more realistic expectations about marriage. By creating realistic expectations, you are avoiding the potential frustration that could later erupt in your marriage. This is what I mean by expect less and get more out of your relationship. It is a key step to taking your marriage from good to really great!
Myth #1. Opposites attract and stay together.
Reality: Similarity plays a key role in relationship longevity and marital happiness.
People are often physically attracted to their opposite. But believe it or not, this attraction is short-term. My own research and that of others shows that similarities are what actually keep people together for the long term and lead to the most successful, happy partnerships. There is no danger in having too much in common with your spouse, despite what the myth would have you believe. Does this mean you have to like the same music or food? Or share similar hobbies and interests? No, if you like to play golf and she prefers yoga, that’s no big deal. If you like chick flicks but he is a foreign documentary aficionado, that’s fine. Such differences—as long as they don’t dominate the relationship—can spice up a relationship. However, what you do need to have in common are your key life values.
In my study, those couples who share similar key life values—such as putting the same importance on religion or agreeing on how children should be taught and cared for—are the happiest couples over time. A couple can share all-important life values even when they are of two different races, religions, or have very dissimilar social backgrounds. Such differences are not as essential for marital happiness as the two partners’ similarity in basic life values.