Is it wrong to have expectations in marriage?
I’m going to climb up on my soapbox for this post and just give a little bit of a rant. I hope you’ll excuse me.
But I see a problem with the way that a lot of Christian teaching addresses emotional needs in marriage, and it’s this:
You can’t expect your spouse to meet your emotional needs. Only God can. If you’re expecting your spouse to meet your needs, you’re putting your spouse in God’s place.
And there’s a corollary to this:
The only way to be happy in marriage is not to have expectations on your spouse.
So expectations are thus seen as sinful. If your spouse is treating you badly and you’re sad, then the problem is not with your spouse for treating you badly. The problem is with you for expecting your spouse to be kind, since the only person we can change is ourselves.
Now, there is an element of truth here. I do believe that the only person you can change is yourself, and so we need to be focused on changing our own behaviour to better the marriage. The contention that I would have is that the change that is required is not that we let go of our expectations; it’s that we learn to handle them appropriately and we learn to express what we need better.
Having trouble with this? Here are two posts that can help!
- How a Marriage Goes Downhill: It’s the little things (are you allowing disrespect in small things?)
- When Your Husband Won’t Change: Is this the last straw? (Maybe you’ve tried everything EXCEPT what really is important).
Why does Christian teaching often focus on how expectations are wrong?
I think that we’re so scared of couples getting divorced that when a couple has a problem that is difficult to solve, the better course of action seems to be to deny the problem is real. If solving the problem involves one spouse changing their behaviour, and that spouse truly doesn’t seem interested, then we’re stuck. So the only solution is to take the miserable spouse and tell them they’re wrong for being miserable.
Ironically I think that philosophy actually harms marriages far more than it helps. When people are miserable because of how they are being treated, you can certainly tell them, “You’re wrong for wanting to be treated well.” And they may push down their misery for a time. They may be able to throw themselves into The Word and grow closer to Jesus (which is definitely a good thing!). They may be able to find other outlets for their needs, for a time.
But ultimately when we are living a lie, that lie catches up with us, even if we’re growing closer to God at the same time (and I would say that growing closer to God often makes that lie harder to live with). And I have personally witnessed several friends leave marriages after decades of pushing their own needs below the surface, and finally not being able to take it anymore.
And the problem is this: Expectations in marriage are not sinful.
I have read so many variations of “our marriage was only happy when I let go of my expectations.” And some of that may very well be true, because many of us have unreasonable expectations of what daily life will look like regarding how we split the chores, how much we have sex, how often we talk, what we do for hobbies, etc.
Expecting that your spouse will meet your needs in a specific way, or do specific things, if often counterproductive. But that doesn’t follow that ALL expectations are therefore bad. Here, for instance, are three expectations you should have of your spouse:
1. It is reasonable to expect that your spouse will fulfill their marriage vows.
When you married, you vowed certain things. And a vow is serious! It is reasonable to expect that your spouse will:
- Forsake all others (including pornographic images of others)
- Share your worldly wealth
- Stay with you in sickness and in health
- Love and cherish you
- Remain committed until death
2. It is reasonable to expect marriage to meet some of your emotional needs.
Now, let’s break down what “love and cherish” mean. No, obviously marriage can’t meet all your needs. First and foremost, our peace, security, and sense of self have to be rooted and grounded in Jesus.
But remember that it was God Himself who said, “It’s not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) It was God who created marriage because we do need each other’s help! Thus, it’s okay to expect that when you get married, you will meet some of your spouse’s needs and they will meet some of yours. Why else would people marry?
And we do have responsibilities towards those around us. The concept of boundaries even teaches us this. When we talk about boundaries, we often focus on the “negative” aspect–how to say no to things that aren’t your responsibility. But there’s another aspect to boundaries. If you think of boundaries like a fence, not only do they keep bad things out; they also keep good things in. They show us what’s supposed to be inside our fence. And some things we are responsible for–including loving and cherishing our spouse.
Do you have a hard time asking for what you want?
3. If I were to break this down even further, I would say this: It is reasonable to expect that your spouse will care about your well-being.
To love and cherish someone means that, at heart, they care about what happens to you. Therefore, if something is seriously bothering you, then it should seriously bother your spouse, too.
Sometimes we may tell our spouse that we’re really hurting, and our spouse doesn’t seem to care. Yesterday I talked about four reasons why your spouse may not understand how much something is bothering you, and how to present it in such a way that they will understand. I truly believe that for most couples having issues, your marriage would fall into one or more of these reasons. It isn’t that the spouse doesn’t care (because most people, after all, are not cruel); it is just that they don’t understand.
Nevertheless, there are some spouses who truly don’t seem to care about a spouse’s misery. How could this possibly be?
1. Their view of Christianity may be that her needs truly don’t matter
In some of the couple friends I know who have split, the husband had such a hierarchical view of marriage that he truly believed that how he saw the marriage was the only valid position. If he believed the marriage should look like X, and she didn’t like X, then she was wrong and had to get into line because he was the leader.
It wasn’t honestly that he was a bad person or that he didn’t care; he actually cared quite a bit about other people’s feelings in other aspects of his life. He just honestly believed that in order to follow God, they needed to pursue his vision for the marriage rather than hers. And if they started talking about her perspective, they would be stepping outside of God’s will.
2. They may be very immature
All human beings go through different stages of moral development. But not all human beings progress through all stages.
Some people learn to do what’s right because it benefits them and they want to follow the rules. But there is a higher stage of moral development, when we do what’s right simply because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the Christian ideal. It’s when we hand over the lordship of our life to the Holy Spirit, and we allow Him to guide us into all righteousness.
But if you’ve never really done this, and if you’re living at an immature level, only doing what benefits you, then you may honestly ignore what your spouse needs. People who come from very dysfunctional families, or families that were super authoritarian or based on fear, often do not progress through different moral stages, and aren’t able to give lordship of their lives over to God.
3. They may honestly be narcissistic
Finally, you may have a spouse who truly doesn’t care about anyone but himself or herself. I think this is often the conclusion that we jump to when we’re expressing our needs and our spouse doesn’t seem to care, but I also think it’s the least likely. Usually there is another explanation. But if you are dealing with a narcissistic individual, there is very little that you can do.
So what do you do if your spouse doesn’t care? Be honest about your needs.
Fight for your marriage! And ironically that means rocking the boat. It’s okay to insist that your needs matter. If your spouse doesn’t listen, it’s okay to demand that they see a counsellor. It’s okay to call in a mentor couple, even if your spouse resists. It’s okay to say, “You may think this isn’t important and that you don’t want to talk about it, but we are going to talk about it. This isn’t going away, because this is important to me and I matter in this marriage.”
By not backing down like you usually do, it’s going to look like you’re trying to destroy your marriage, but you’re not. The only way to make your marriage better is to not accept the status quo anymore.
Let’s stop this rhetoric that it’s wrong to have expectations in marriage.
Being married means you do have a claim on some things from your spouse. Let’s admit that. And then, if a person is living in a marriage where the spouse honestly doesn’t care, we can at least come alongside them and support them, rather than shaming them for having needs in the first place.
And, please, everybody, ask yourself this question:
Am I ignoring my spouse’s concerns? Am I repeatedly telling my spouse that he or she is wrong for having certain needs?
A Better Way to Honour God in Your Marriage:
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