There’s no shortage of unrealistic expectations about marriage. Which we can pick up from our families, from friends, from fairy tales, from television and movies, from magazine articles. And these supposedly true beliefs can sabotage our relationships, creating a whole lot of misunderstanding and chipping away at our connection.
Unrealistic expectations “set up couples to fail,” said Clinton Power, a clinical relationship counsellor. “When you expect that your relationship is meant to be a certain way, and that expectation doesn’t happen, this can create feelings of anxiety, sadness, and despair.” It can spark resentment, which can ruin relationships.
Below are three unrealistic expectations—and the truths behind each one.
Unrealistic expectation: Happy couples continue to feel the same intense feelings of love. “Falling in love is often called a ‘temporary psychosis’ for the very reason that when you are ‘head over heels’ in love with another person, you are often blinded to some of their differences and quirks,” said Power, founder of Clinton Power + Associates in Sydney, Australia. You love everything about your partner, and want to be with them. All. The. Time.
There are physiological reasons for this. According to psychotherapist and relationship expert Melissa Ferrari, “Oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin dance with the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone, fueling our desire and keeping us on a ‘happy high’ of love and lust.”
But eventually, these electric effects dissipate. And what’s left are two people dealing with the reality of day-to-day life, Ferrari said. “And this is where the hard work starts.”
After the honeymoon period is over, it’s totally normal to enter a period of conflict, Power said. For instance, the quirks you once found adorable, like your partner regularly running late and losing things, are now like nails on a chalkboard. Now it’s a significant source of tension. After all, you take pride in your punctuality, and you have a penchant for organization. Which your partner keeps messing with.
The good news is that conflict isn’t inherently a problem. In fact, it’s actually an opportunity, Power said. When you’re experiencing conflict, you “learn to negotiate and manage your differences” and “how to successfully soothe one another when one or both of you are upset.”
Unrealistic expectation: Happy relationships remain the same. We assume that the person we married will remain exactly as they are, and thereby so will our relationship. This expectation might even be subconscious, but it rises to the surface in the form of surprise: Your spouse starts exploring a new career path or passion or moving away from something they used to love (and you still do), and you’re taken aback.
Maybe you even think, this isn’t the person I married. And maybe they’re not.
“[P]eople grow and change over time, and this means that the relationship changes,” Power said. He shared this example: A couple starts dating when one partner is only 19 years old. This younger partner receives a big promotion—and begins traveling more and more and spending more time at the office, building their dream career. The other partner, who’s at home, misses them and becomes increasingly bored. So they start going out more. Both partners are upset at their new reality because they feel disconnected from each other, drifting further and further apart.
“The issue is they haven’t accounted for some of the individual changes they are each going through. The relationship can’t be like it used to be, because they are different people now than they were when they first met.”
Unrealistic expectation: Partners are responsible for each other’s happiness. We tend to have expectations about what we’ll “get” from our partners, Ferrari said. And when our partner doesn’t give us what we think we should be getting, resentment emerges, and starts settling in. (“Over time, resentment can evolve into contempt, which is coined ‘the sulfuric acid of love’ because it will erode a marriage.”)
Ferrari works with many, many couples who expect their partner to meet their happiness quota. For instance, they expect their partner to earn enough money to give them anything they want. “That places pressure on your partner to make you happy about something that you could be aspiring to yourself.”
Plus, it’s very different from trying to understand your spouse in a profound, meaningful, vulnerable way, and fulfill their unmet needs. This might look like giving your partner a big, long hug every time you come home because you know that physical touch helps them to feel loved. This might look like making it a point to thank them for their kind gestures, because you know that as a child, they regularly felt unappreciated. This might look like talking calmly through conflict because they grew up in a volatile home.
The above is about being considerate and getting to know your partner. It isn’t about doing something for them that they can do themselves. It isn’t about taking responsibility for satisfying their needs. It is about supporting them.
It is about helping them to heal past hurts, Ferrari said. Which can “help them greatly psychologically, particularly in terms of confidence, feeling loved, safe and secure…” And that is incredibly powerful.
Explore the expectations you have about relationships—about what healthy, connected marriages look like, about how you and your partner should behave, about what you should “get.” Then explore where these beliefs stem from—and whether they’re genuinely true. Because many of our expectations are not, and many of them can interfere with our relationship.