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STOP CLINGING TO UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
In the 2001 chick flick The Wedding Planner, Matthew McConaughey plays Dr. Steve Edison, a pediatrician, and Jennifer Lopez is Mary Flore, a wedding planner hired by a female client engaged to Steve. Steve is not with his fiancée during the initial stages of planning the wedding, so he and Mary do not meet. Later they encounter each other accidentally, but Mary does not know he is the groom of her client. The attraction between them is immediate, and they spend a romantically charged evening enjoying a community event in the local park.
Mary instantly falls in love with Steve—or at least in love with the idea of being in love with him. But when she discovers that he is the groom of her client, she is angry and hurt because she believes he has deceived her. A love-hate relationship ensues. But Steve, now attracted to Mary, comes to believe he is not as in love with his bride-to-be as he thought. The movie ends with this realization blossoming moments before the ceremony as Steve breaks off the wedding, rushes to find Mary, and they get married—supposedly to live happily ever after.
It's a fun, romantic movie that's typical of most in its genre. But I believe movies of this type—along with the TV shows, magazines, and romance novels of the past half-century—have done much to create the seriously flawed expectations couples take into marriage today. I am convinced that these unrealistic expectations are a major cause of the ballooning number of failed marriages in America.
Studies show that most Americans (70 percent) believe the purpose of marriage is to find a mate who will make them happy. By "happy" they mean that marriage should sustain consistently romantic feelings between soul mates whose sexual ecstasy lasts a lifetime. Of course, this is not the reality of day-to-day married life. Yet many newlyweds cling to these unrealistic expectations. Therefore, the first argument creates a crisis rather than being just a normal event through which great marriages grow.
Unrealistic expectations are toxic in marriage. Stable marriages require both partners to take a hard look at mutual goals, compatibility on practical matters, and deep commitment to shared values, religion, and moral principles.
I find it significant that in The Wedding Planner, Steve and Mary do not take the time to get to know each other intimately. Their backgrounds, parentage, values, religion, goals, undiscovered personality traits, or economic expectations are not considered. They don't know if they both want children or if they act like children when they don't get their way. The message of the movie is that love conquers all, and nothing else matters as long as the couple's kisses curl their toes (or in most current movies, their lovemaking sets off fireworks). Steve and Mary believe they are each other's romantic soul mate, so all other concerns will automatically fall into place.
If it turns out that the marriage does not make them happy, they conclude they must have chosen the wrong mate. So they divorce and begin a new search for their romantic soul mate. (Or perhaps more commonly, first find their new romantic soul mate and then get a divorce.)
Unrealistic Expectations Undermine Reality
I believe in love and romance as much as anyone. But the unrealistic expectations created by making romance the primary focus of your relationship can lead to an early unraveling of the marriage bond.
Over and over I have seen people enter marriage expecting nonstop romantic bliss, and within a few weeks they are surprised by how difficult it is to live together harmoniously. Often the couple clings to these fantasy expectations because they didn't date long enough to know each other well. When expectations are dashed by harsh reality, the marriage spirals into a miserable existence of disappointment, regret, and resentment.
You and your spouse can live happily ever after—but only if both of you are willing to work through the issues and differences you brought into the marriage. You hear little or nothing about this struggle in the movies or pop literature. What if Mary intends to keep her wedding-planning career while Steve expects her to be a stay-at-home mom? What if she never reckoned on his long hours and 3 a.m. emergencies that are standard in the life of a doctor? What if another beautiful woman turns Steve's head as easily as Mary turned his?
Again, these dashed expectations result from too little time spent getting to know the other person. Before marriage, both put their best foot forward, and the other foot is not exposed until after the honeymoon. And each partner is shocked to see how ugly that other foot turns out to be.
When Robert and Frances were dating, he was always kind and gentle with her. Once she had found a stack of old newspapers on Robert's car seat and, assuming they were trash, pitched them into a sidewalk receptacle. She didn't realize that the papers were his collection of clippings about his college tennis career. When he discovered the loss, he had been upset but understanding. He made no complaint about the humiliation of having to rummage through the trash can to retrieve his treasures.
But one Saturday morning less than a month after they married, Robert was out golfing and Frances decided to do him the favor of organizing his cluttered desk. She was careful to throw away nothing. When Robert came home he went ballistic, cursing and belittling her for messing with his stuff and invading his privacy. It was only the first of many such explosions, revealing a short-fused temper she had never suspected.
Had the haze of romantic expectations not dimmed her insight, Frances might have recognized hints of Robert's temper before they married, in the way he treated his mother or restaurant waiters, or even in the way he railed at drivers who tailgated, drove too slowly, or failed to signal turns. (Driving behavior provides an amazing number of clues to a person's inner character.) But with her he had kept his temper hidden until the daily reality of marriage revealed it.
Problems that surface during courtship don't go away; they intensify after you say "I do." In today's self-focused culture, marriage rarely serves as a channel for couples to grow and mature. Instead couples view marriage as their rightful opportunity to reap the rewards from their investment in courtship. The excitement of romantic pursuit and discovery gives way to a relaxing of the intense focus on pleasing each other. That's when harsh realities rise to the surface.
The Disappointment of the Soul-Mate Model
Disappointment with your mate is usually not caused by a dramatic character flaw or extreme self-centeredness, but merely by personal differences. Minor differences that seemed unimportant while dating expand into mountains of disappointment in marriage. Perhaps in the evenings you like to spend hours surfing the Internet, while your spouse wants to watch movies together. Your mate likes to watch sitcoms; you want to flip to the news. You believe you should eat only health foods; your spouse wants burgers and fries. Your mate loves NASCAR; you love symphonies.
While dating, you and your mate couldn't be together enough. But now that you are married and together all the time, you miss your independence and want more time to yourself. So you work late in the evenings and devote more time to your hobbies, causing your spouse to feel lonely. Or maybe your spouse feels smothered by your persistent desire for sex and becomes unresponsive to your sexual hints and advances. Maybe you revert to previous sloppy habits while your mate is an obsessive neatnik. You two don't go out as much in the evenings and eat fewer dinners together. One or both of you is grumpy in the morning or uncommunicative after a hard day's work.
If you and your spouse were seduced by the soul-mate model of marriage, you have no warning that the iceberg of unrealistic expectations looms ahead; thus, when you encounter it your hope sinks. How can you keep your marriage afloat? Couples whose relationships were formed on the soul-mate model feel blindsided by this harsh reality in marriage, and the resulting disappointment often brings dissatisfaction with the relationship and the beginning of a wandering eye.
If your marriage relationship is cooling because of unmet expectations, ask yourself this: Just what were you in love with—a fantasy of your own creation or a real person possessing the same fallen tendencies as every son of Adam and daughter of Eve? Did you fall in love with a person or with a feeling? As a golden oldie song put it, were you merely "falling in love with love"?
Resetting Your Expectations
Since the romantic soul-mate model for marriage creates false expectations that lead to disappointment, what are the right expectations that bind couples together in an enduring, satisfying, and happy marriage?
The traditional view of marriage held by most Americans until the end of of the twentieth century was this: "raising a family together, offering mutual aid to one another in tough times, and becoming engaged in larger networks of kin and community." If you are clinging to the soul-mate model, the traditional model of marriage may seem overly practical and unromantic. But the bottom line is that it worked. Those marriages—built on a foundation of family, mutual aid, and community—tended to last a lifetime. The traditional model may seem to be a letdown from the romantic ecstasy promised by the soul-mate model. But that is only because both models have been misunderstood.
In suggesting you embrace the traditional model of marriage, I am not asking you to lower your expectations; I'm actually asking you to raise them. Marriage can be so much better than the soul-mate model has led you to expect. Marriage is not one-dimensional, focused solely on romance and sexual ecstasy. In reality, marriage is multidimensional, consisting of a series of seasons from the honeymoon to the empty nest during which the couple progresses from biological fireworks to deep, sustaining, romantic love and fruitful lives of shared experiences and relationships.
A marriage built on the traditional model embraces the big picture of all that marriage can be. If you want a strong marriage, stop clinging to unrealistic expectations of perpetual candlelight dinners and unending fireworks in the bedroom. Replace that expectation with the higher model of making your marriage the crowning achievement of a lifetime.
Differences in Gender
Another source of unrealistic expectations in a marriage is expecting your spouse to behave and respond to circumstances the same way you do—or the way your same-sex friends do. This expectation ignores the obvious reality of gender differences between men and women. Not only do you and your mate have different bodies, but you have differently wired brains, different emotional responses, and different hormones flooding your systems. This is why author John Gray says it's like men and women are from two different planets. When husbands and wives relate to each other, all these differences come into play and act as filters through which we perceive the other person. Naturally, each sex thinks its perspective is the accurate one. Yet men and women are inherently different, and if a spouse does not accept the differences, disappointment is a sure thing.
Let's take one common complaint as an example. Many women tell me about their husband's reticence to share his desires, fears, and problems. Viewing their husbands through a feminine filter, they interpret this reluctance as resistance to the intimacy she desires. "He's closed himself off to me," she complains, feeling rejected and hurt. While lack of communication is a flaw that many men need to work on, expecting a husband to share as deeply and fully as a female best friend is an unrealistic expectation that often leads to frustration and disappointment.
It's not that men don't have these feelings; most men love their wives dearly. But many men are like the old Vermont farmer who said, "I love my wife, Millie, so much it's all I can do to keep from telling her." The right feelings are there, and it would do wonders for a wife if he would let them out.
I am not excusing this reticence because I've learned that most women love expressions of endearment like flowers need rain. Of course, each woman is unique in how she prefers her husband to express his endearment. Perhaps she feels loved when you buy her a gift. Or she may feel loved when you write her a special note. Maybe she just wants you to spend time with her. The point for husbands is this: learn how your wife wants to be loved, and express your love to her that way.
We men do have our gender tendencies, but we don't have to be slaves to them. Each sex can learn a few new tricks for the sake of the other. But the point is, neither you nor your mate will get everything you dream of in the other. Both of you must be ready to accept traits that you wish were otherwise.
The best way to accept some gender differences is to learn to look at them as blessings. The truth is, neither sex will ever completely understand the other. It's simply not meant to be. Those differences are by God's design. Just as you and your mate can have a sexual relationship only because of your physical differences, many of the other ways you relate to each other are possible or at least enhanced because of differences—differences in outlook, ideas, abilities, and interests. If you and your spouse were exactly alike, you wouldn't need each other any more than you need two heads. Your world would be a dull place of limited horizons because you would be deprived of all the creativity, personalities, and development that come from the two of you pooling your differing outlooks, ideas, and abilities.
A key to a successful marriage is to learn not only to accept each other's gender differences, but also to use them to broaden the possibilities of what your marriage can become.
Differences in Family Background
We relate to each other not only through the filters of our respective genders but also of our family backgrounds and training. The two of you were raised in different homes, with different parents, siblings, friends, educations, and usually different churches—sometimes different denominations or even different religions. These varying influences leave each of you with different expectations.
In his family, for example, the kitchen was the woman's realm, and men were not expected to be part of it. In her family, the father helped in the kitchen. He took out the trash, mopped the floors, helped with the dishes, and often cooked steaks on the grill. Thus when the daughter from this family marries the son from the other, these differing expectations will be deeply embedded, likely causing friction over kitchen duties if they don't address the issue and develop kitchen duties that work for both of them.
One important reality every couple must learn to accept is each other's family. This is not always easy, and it often requires a generous dose of grace. Your mate's family may or may not have serious flaws, but they will certainly have significant differences that can cause misunderstandings. Often difficulties with a spouse's family are visible before the marriage, but the couple dismisses them as unimportant, saying, "I'm not marrying her parents; I'm marrying her." That is a myth. Relationships with parents are inevitable and can present problems neither partner expected.
Perhaps she's an only child from an academic family with quiet habits and reserved interactions. He's one of five siblings who love loud banter, jokes, competitive games, and raucous laughter. Expect misunderstandings in the marriage. Maybe his less-than-mature mother resented the transfer of his affections to his bride. Or her father disapproved of the marriage, thinking no man is good enough for his daughter—especially you. Expect problems. Scheduling family events can become as treacherous as walking through a minefield. His family thinks they should come home every Christmas. So does hers. Solutions are almost impossible, and relationships can get sticky. When you marry, you take your mate's family as your own and work toward loving and accepting them just as your mate does—warts, skeletons, inconveniences, and all.
When dealing with the natural differences that arise from gender and backgrounds, it helps to be objective and realize that many perceived flaws in your mate are likely nothing more than unmet expectations on your own part. He may never earn the money to live in the style you hoped for, or she may not have the cooking skills or sexual interest you dreamed of. Don't hang on to an unrealistic expectation that the other person is there to meet every need you have. Accept and celebrate the differences.
Excerpted from The 7 Minute Marriage Solution by Stephen Arterburn. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Arterburn. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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