No matter how long you date someone, you will find that in living together, what you think is normal behavior may not be "normal" to your spouse. We all come with expectations based on past experiences. Consequently, our partner will never be the "perfect" person we dream of.
Many young girls dream of their future Mr. Darcy — that check-all-the-boxes person on her list of qualifications:
Rich and powerful
Drives a sports car
Plays an instrument and sings love songs
Writes romantic poems
Makes me laugh all the time
A stylish dresser
For others who have been unlucky in love, they will settle for "Has his own teeth and a pulse."
What unrealistic expectations did you bring to marriage? Take William Stafford's practical advice he gave to picky poets who were never happy with their work: "If you don't like your writing, lower your standards."
You may ask: Should I hold no expectations in marriage or parenting, so I am never disappointed? No. I am the first to qualify that lowering our expectations does not mean lowering our core standards or settling in certain areas.
There is a spectrum of importance and areas of negotiation and compromise. We can see this in an Expectation Continuum.
On the high end of standards, there are a few relationship absolutes such as honesty, trust, love, kindness and respect. But at the other end of the continuum, it really doesn't matter who takes out the garbage. It may be important to someone that her husband loves to play board games, but if she realizes that isn't the case, the world will not end. It can be bumped down to a lower expectation. The marriage is still solid if she appreciates her husband's sterling character.
Somewhere in the middle are negotiable expectations like how much business traveling a spouse agrees to do. If you find yourself completely annoyed or angry that your spouse has to travel so much, your spouse might have the option of looking for other employment or negotiating less time away from home with his boss. You have the option of deciding to be grateful your spouse has employment, works hard to provide, and enjoys his career. If the first two are not an option, you always have the third. In that light, "lowering" our standards can really be viewed as "adjusting" them.
Every day, spouses and parents experience expectations not being met. Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg wrote in their book, Fighting for Your Marriage (2010), "A major clue to understanding your own expectations is disappointment. When you're disappointed, some expectation hasn't been met. When you're disappointed, stop and ask yourself what you expected." How we manage our disappointment will determine our happiness or unhappiness.
Let me share a story shared by a therapist that I'll call "The Parable of the Orange Juice."
Whenever he became ill as a child, his mother brought him a pitcher of orange juice and a glass to put by his bedside. Liquid Love.
When he became sick for the first time after marriage, he waited in bed for the pitcher of orange juice to arrive. No orange juice. He was perplexed at why his wife, who loved him very much, would not be bringing him gallons of orange juice as a token of her love. He coughed and groaned loudly, and she went about doing the dishes. He was quite put out that he finally had to ask (of all things!),"Dear, will you bring me some orange juice?" She hurried right in but only with a half glass. "Is this how little she loves me?" he thought.
Obviously, these newlyweds had different expectations of how to treat a sick partner. The wife came from a large family where everybody, more or less, fended for themselves. She did not have the personal, round-the-clock, fluff-your-pillow care that her husband experienced as a child in a small family. It also shocked him the first time she walked into the bathroom and acted like it was perfectly normal to fix her hair and makeup while he sat on the toilet hiding behind a newspaper.
Adjusting our standards or expectations, acknowledges our priorities are not perfect, and our partner and children do not always align with us. Disappointment can be the cue to reexamine our priorities.
So your wife isn't the best cook in the world. What can you appreciate about her instead?
So your husband lacks in the help-around-the-house department. What essential character traits does he have that you love?
Does it really matter that your child wants to play the guitar rather than baseball? Can you forgive weaknesses in your wife and focus instead on her good qualities and the contributions she makes? If you do, chances are she will do the same for you.
Rabbi Harold Kushner said, "The illusion of perfection in the partner will not last. And that is why the essence of marital love is not romance but forgiveness... Forgiveness as the truest form of love means accepting without bitterness the flaws and imperfection of our partner and praying that our partner accepts our flaws as well... Mature marital love sees faults clearly and forgives them, understanding that there are no perfect people and that an imperfect spouse is all that an imperfect person like us can aspire to... If we cannot love imperfect people, if we cannot forgive them for their exasperating faults, we will condemn ourselves to a life of loneliness because imperfect people are the only kind we will ever find."
JULIE K. NELSON is a mother, wife, professor, author of "Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger: 25 tips for surviving parenthood" and "Parenting With Spiritual Power," and is a contributor on radio and TV. Her website is www.aspoonfulofparenting.com.