One of Terrie’s early, unspoken expectations of marriage was that I would help around the house. Shortly after we were married, we had invited company over for dinner. I noticed she was stressed with the preparations and offered to help. I was pleased with how delighted she was at my offer and silently congratulated myself on my sensitivity and kindness.
Then I rolled up my sleeves and tackled what looked to me like the biggest project—alphabetizing the bookshelf.
Although we both laugh at that incident now, it didn’t strike Terrie funny then. But it was one of our early discoveries of how easily expectations collide in marriage.
It is expectations and misunderstandings like these that set couples up for an ongoing stream of disappointment. In marriage counseling, we almost always find that marital disappointment comes from unrealistic, and often unspoken, expectations spouses have one of another.
Of course, not all expectations are wrong or unreasonable. But most of our expectations are built on a spirit of pride or self-thought. If we don’t learn to recognize them, we will become embittered toward our spouse because of them.
We see unmet expectations all throughout Scripture. Sometimes they were false expectations of God and sometimes unrealistic expectations of others. But one of the classic accounts of misplaced expectations is in 2 Kings 5 where we find the Syrian captain, Naaman, going to the prophet Elisha to be healed of leprosy. Naaman arrived with a large entourage, but Elisha simply sent his servant to the door with instructions for Naaman to dip seven times in the muddy Jordan River. This perceived slight offended Naaman who left Elisha’s house “in a rage” (anger is a classic indicator of unmet expectations). Notice Naaman’s response:
But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper.—2 Kings 5:11
Thankfully, Naaman did humble himself, follow Elisha’s instructions, and experience the miraculous healing of God. But think about his initial response: “Behold, I thought….”
I’ve heard many unrealistic expectations over the years. They usually begin with the phrase, “But I thought….” Here are several of the most common:
- But I thought marriage would make me happy. It is easy, especially for people who are not yet married or who are struggling in their marriage, to turn marriage into a personal idol, believing that the “perfect spouse” is the answer to any unhappiness in life. This expectation places an incredible pressure on a spouse. No spouse is perfect, and no person can be your single source of happiness. Only Jesus can give you continuing happiness.
- But I thought my spouse would meet all of my needs. Focusing on your needs can only ruin a marriage. Every husband has unique needs, as does every wife. Ephesians 5 speaks to the individual nature of each spouse’s needs as it commands wives to honor their husbands and husbands to love their wives. But don’t miss the obvious—the command to each spouse is to meet the other’s needs, not to focus on his or her own needs.
- But I thought he/she would change after we got married. Marrying someone with the expectation they will become a different person after marriage is unreasonable and unfair. Marriage is not a magic change agent that transforms a person. Before you are married, your job is to be sure the person you want to marry is someone you can trust. After marriage, your job is to work to understand and love the person you married.
- But I thought if I found the right one, marriage would be easy. Good marriages take effort. It requires real work to understand your spouse and honor and love him or her. A spouse who is passionate about a strong marriage thinks about his or her spouse often and constantly invests in the relationship.
- But I thought good marriages never struggle. Actually, most marriages will hit a “wall.” Sometimes a couple is surprised by a season of difficulty in their marriage. This faulty expectation leads them to assume then that their marriage is already as good as gone. If, when you encounter such a season, you recognize that every difficulty can be worked through with the grace of God, biblical truth (perhaps including wise counsel), and a determination to strengthen your relationship, you’ll get through it—and be stronger for it.
When you hear yourself say, “But I just thought…” that’s a clue that you’re dealing with unmet expectations.
Our flesh tells us that the only way our unfulfilled expectations can be overcome is if our spouse will change and turn those expectations into fulfilled desires. Scripture tells us there is another way.
The journey to happiness in marriage is not one of insisting your spouse change. It is in learning to change your thoughts by letting the mind of Christ become yours.
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.—Philippians 2:4–8
The world conditions us to expect. Glossy advertising, consumer-driven marketing, resorts, amusement parks…they all say, “You deserve more; let us give it to you.” Yet the world consistently underperforms. The higher our expectations the less satisfying reality becomes. Only a servant will be pleasantly surprised.
Do you want to transform your marriage? Leave selfish expectations at the cross, and pick up the only Christlike expectation—the expectation to serve.
P.S. This post is an excerpt from a new book Terrie and I are writing together. It is titled Are We There Yet? Marriage—A Perfect Journey for Imperfect Couples. We look forward to it being available through Striving Together Publications this summer.