Are your expectations in marriage impossible to achieve?
Recently I was going through some older posts that most of you will not have seen, and I came across this one about having sky-high marriage expectations. I thought it was worth re-running today.
You may have heard it said before that “the enemy of the best is the good”. The French philosopher Voltaire made it famous (though he said it in French!), and it caught on because it’s so true. Often we get so caught up doing good things that we miss the best. We miss our priorities.
But that being said, I think the reverse can also be true.
Sometimes the best is the enemy of the good.
When the best is more a fairy-tale ideal than a reality, then it can become the enemy of making any kind of real progress. The best can actually be a hindrance to your marriage.
Allow me to use an analogy that doesn’t have to do with marriage first to show you what I mean. A while back I caused a ruckus in the comments section of this blog because I insinuated that there were things that women could do to reduce the chance of sexual assault, and we should teach these to our daughters. I never said that we could eliminate rape (because we can’t)–but I said that we could reduce it.
People kept taking issue with me, so I kept writing follow-up posts, and the comments grew worse and worse. One commenter really summed up the other side perfectly. She said (and I paraphrase):
Women should be able to wear whatever they want and go wherever they want. You should be talking to the men, not to the women!
She was a little ruder than that, but I’ll leave out the colorful language.
What a strange comment, though. OF COURSE women should be able to wear what they want and do what they want without getting raped. We should live in a world where there is no abuse, no rape, no children in poverty, no wars, and no violence. But we don’t live in that world. And since we don’t, what steps can we take to protect ourselves?
They were focusing so much on what SHOULD be that they refused to acknowledge that there were any steps you could take to make our present life, the one we are living in right now, even the least bit better.
It was all or nothing.
Have you ever felt that way about your marriage? I once knew a woman who eventually left her husband, who explained it to me this way:
God created marriage to be a joining of two human beings–an institution where we’re able to communicate, and love, and respect, and share ideas and share vision and purpose. He created marriage to build us up, not to tear us down. He created marriage to be part of our fulfillment, not part of our destruction. My husband didn’t know how to communicate. He never listened to me. He never talked to me; he only ever talked past me. He used sex just to satisfy himself. In other words, it wasn’t actually a marriage. And so I ended it.
I have no doubt that her marriage was extremely difficult, but do you see the problem with her position? She was saying that because her marriage was not one in which two individuals were completely joined, it was thus not a marriage. God intended marriage to be fulfilling; it was not, therefore the argument about whether one had biblical grounds to divorce was moot because this wasn’t even marriage!
Her argument is flawed, because while God said marriage should be like this, He never invalidated marriages that were not like that. Indeed, in Corinthians Paul even tells women married to men who aren’t Christians to stay if they can–and these marriages are obviously not a complete joining of minds and ideals.
This woman was looking for the best in her marriage; she didn’t find it, so therefore she invalidated everything else.
Many of us enter marriage with similar thoughts. Marriage SHOULD be a place where we can completely bear our souls. Marriage SHOULD be a place where we are unconditionally cherished. Marriage SHOULD be a place where we find our best friend. Then, when the should doesn’t happen, we give up. We have expectations in marriage about how things SHOULD be, and we can’t settle for second best. We don’t look at little changes that we could make to grow the marriage, or to grow our communication, because we figure that he is just hopeless. He’s so out of touch with what a husband should be, that growth is well nigh impossible.
None of us is perfect, though, and I think we need a different strategy. If your husband isn’t a good communicator, or sulks constantly, or watches too much TV (or plays too many video games), or never spends any time with the kids, that doesn’t invalidate your marriage, and it doesn’t mean that things can’t get better. After all, by staying away from drunken parties, girls can drastically reduce their risk of date rape. Similarly, by learning new communication techniques, you can drastically reduce your risk of growing apart and ending the relationship. You can do things to move in the right direction, even if those things won’t give you 100% change. They can still make your life significantly better.
Now, in some cases no matter what you do you can’t rescue a marriage. You can’t stop an abusive man from hitting you just by learning to be nicer or not pushing his buttons. You can’t stop a porn addict from using porn, and these things do need to be confronted. But in most marriages it’s not these huge issues that bring us down. It’s disappointments in the day-to-day.
What I would suggest, then, is that we stop focusing on our ideal expectations for marriage, and we start looking at what we can do to make things better.
In other words, quit focusing so much on the destination, and focus instead on the direction. Move forward, even if it’s slowly, and you will eventually get there. Focus so much on the finish line, and how far it is away from your current position, and you can quickly lose heart.
This applies to aspects of marriage, too. I was at a place in our marriage once where everything was going really well–except sex. It’s not that it was horrible; it just wasn’t what it was supposed to be, according to the media and all the sermons I heard about how God created sex to be wonderful. For a few years, I gave up. It’s not that we didn’t make love; it’s just that my attitude was one of: “this just isn’t for me. It’s all for him, and I’ll just get through it.” I believed that if sex wasn’t the ideal, then I had been cheated, and there was no point in even trying.
It was only when I had an attitude shift where I started to ask whether I could believe that it could get better–even if it was slowly. When I made the mental shift, then the way I acted also changed.
(I tell a ton more about this story in my new book, 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage!)
Whether it’s in your marriage as a whole or in individual parts of your marriage, don’t give up because you haven’t reached the ideal.
Ask God to help you make baby steps, because those steps can add up! Ask Him to give you a new heart to grow, even if it’s slowly, because moving in the right direction gives you a new attitude or outlook on your marriage which is so much more energizing.
Whatever you do, don’t let the best become an enemy of that real, helpful change.