marriage couple walking under tree canopy with brown house behind, madly in love, looking at each other and smiling, country feels

The Value of Realistic Expectations

It’s been said that the secret to a happy life or a happy marriage, is to hope for everything and expect nothing. I beg to differ. Expect nothing and that’s what you’ll get. So, expectations need to be high. Right?

Again. I beg to differ. In my opinion, realistic expectations are the key to contentment. For instance, if you expect July and August in Carolina to be cool and comfortable you are going to be sorely disappointed and full of complaints. On the other hand, if you prepare for the inevitable heat and humidity, it will be easier to tolerate and you will be able to enjoy the rare gift of a cooler day when it shows up.

Based on my observations and conversations with many couples, the road to marital dissatisfaction—and often to divorce—is paved with unrealistic expectations.

Couples tend to marry, or otherwise link lives, when young and starry-eyed, or at least starry-eyed. Sometimes they are older and should know better. At any rate, unrealistic expectations flourish. Hopefully, romance, along with the magical ability to agree on everything, the belief that your partner is close to perfect and sees you in the same light—will last indefinitely if not forever. After all, this time the feeling is different, stronger, more authentic. This is the real deal. Usually it takes only a few months, sometimes a few weeks of everyday life together to find out just how unrealistic those expectations were. 

Another sadly unrealistic expectation is that once you are cohabiting or married, you will be able to change your partner’s annoying habits, the way they handle money, even their relationship with their family. 

Unrealistic negative expectations that grow out of disappointment with reality are equally damaging. Believing that your partner ‘will never….’ or ‘will always….’ act or talk or think a certain way leaves you feeling hopeless. Hope is crucial for any relationship to flourish, which can be where couples counseling comes in.

Counseling serves as a catalyst for hope by helping you find ways to work through disagreements and stay emotionally connected.

It is entirely unrealistic, however, to expect that after 15 or 20 years of living together, knowing each other so well that you can have both sides of an argument on your own, a few sessions with a marriage counselor will fix everything. Or at the very least make it perfectly clear that your partner is the problem, and your own negative behavior is totally justified. Either your partner will shape up, or you will be free to walk away without guilt or pain because they refuse to change. More unrealistic expectations! When marriages end, pain is inevitable, and guilt, deserved or not, most often goes with the territory. 

In marriage as in all of life, one key to happiness is realistic expectations. Ask yourself if it’s realistic to expect that your gregarious, social wife will enjoy a life reduced to work, childcare and nightly TV with little or no conversation. Is it realistic to assume your sports-loving husband will be content to watch Hallmark movies rather than his favorite teams’ games? Relationships navigate such personal differences by acceptance and accommodation on the part of both partners. If you admit that your partner is human, that life will be challenging at times, that every relationship has an ebb and flow, it will be easier to ride the wave and stick with it. And avoid the temptation to start ‘talking’ with someone else who is only a text away. 

Couples counseling reinforces realistic expectations crucial to a lasting relationship: a partner who has your back, who you can trust, with whom it is emotionally safe to be yourself. Also learning to be that person for your partner. 

These qualities keep a relationship humming along through the mundane, ordinary and stressful. Through the demands of children and careers and the unexpected stressors like pandemics, job losses, natural disasters. Through “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Shakespeare put it. 

My formula for happiness and contentment in life and in marriage? Hope plus realistic expectations plus loving acceptance—of yourself and your partner.

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