I was out for dinner with the old married ladies crew. We each had various different gripes and moans about the other halves, but the unifying element was the chasm between our expectations of them and their behaviour in reality.
Professor of social psychology, Eli Finkel believes that he has hit on the number one cause of the breakdown of a relationship. Expectations. The author of The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How The Best Marriages Work says that the key to being more happy in our relationships is to be more realistic.
He cites the shift in traditional gender roles as a catalyst for men and women seeking more ‘authentic’ lives which ultimately can put pressure on marriages with disastrous consequences when the relationship doesn’t live up to expectations.
“The main change (in the past century) has been that we’ve added, on top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves,” he told The Atlantic.
The more I thought about the expectations thing the more I realised it was at the root of virtually every argument we’ve ever had as a couple.
Arguments as trivial as who’s turn it is to put the washing out to the bigger issues like who gets to pick the next Netflix series are all born out of having expectations that don’t marry up with the reality. Then, however, I started down a rabbit hole of profound irritation. How is it possible to have zero expectations of my partner? I do practically everything for him! (Sidenote: He would strenuously dispute that.)
I found myself revisiting one of our most spectacular and, I’ll admit it, shallow arguments that took place last year when he gave me my own engagement ring, a ring I’d already owned for six years, wrapped up in a box as my birthday present. Baffling. To give some context, I had dropped it in to be cleaned and when I went to collect it, the jeweller told me it had been collected already by my husband. When he didn’t hand over the ring in a timely fashion, I immediately began to fantasise about what amazing surprise he was cooking up for me. Was I getting an ‘upgrade’? The original ring, purchased when we were in our mid 20s cost less than an average weekly shop. “I’ve always loved rubies,” I practically panted to myself, clearly forgetting that we’re mired in mortgage and babies and debt.
And there we have it, those pesky expectations. Expectations I had no business having as, in our decade together, The Man has never distinguished him in the field of gifts or romance or surprises. At all. This is the man who once gave me six cans of Tuborg for Valentine’s Day and has largely ignored the holiday since.?And yet I continue to expect him to behave differently, to suddenly divine through some supernatural gift of clairvoyance what it is that I expect from him. On this I think I’m going to have to disagree with Finkel and posit that it is not expectations that are the problem but rather our lack of willingness to communicate them.
“But he should just know,” said one of the old married ladies last night about a fight with her husband. “I shouldn’t have to tell him at this point.” I totally get this logic but sadly trends have shown that men are abysmal at’mind-reading.
I pondered Finkel’s advice to?”think about what you’re looking for from this one relationship and decide, are these expectations realistic in light of who I am, who my partner is, what the dynamics that we have together are?”
The dynamic in my marriage is for The Man to get steadily angrier and angrier at me without any shift in his outward appearance that might give me a clue as to the rage bubbling within. Meanwhile when I’m angry, I engage in some very LOUD passive aggressive cleaning, from which he presumably deduces that I want to clean the house, not that I am furious with him for not realising that he’s done something to upset me. I suppose this might be why there have been so many studies suggesting that couples who argue’more are, in fact, happier. The arguments at least bypass petty resentments building up.
It’s all very good identifying that communication and realistic expectations are essential for a good relationship, but there’re no cookie cutter relationships and there’re no cookie cutter solutions. I have found myself lately thinking a lot about my L.O.W.s (that’s litany of woes to those of you who are not currently mired in self-pity). Whenever my inner monologue is focused on my relationship, the narrative is as predictable as one of those airport novels with the pink and blue covers, the silhouettes of the man and woman dancing and embossed butterflies.
“He stayed out till 3am without texting me?and he doesn’t even think about what I’ve been dealing with these last few years…” As is the way with anyone’s life, the last three (to thirty!) years have had their challenges. It’s irrelevant what the specifics are, they’re the usual illness, death and sorrows, banal in their ubiquitousness.
When I’ve really analysed it, I’ve had to admit that no marriage is a vacuum, we are individuals yes but we are enmeshed and the L.O.W.s have affected my husband, every bit as much as they have me. In a deep relationship, there is endless transference of emotions, he has probably suffered some kind of grief-by-proxy for which I’ve made no allowances. I expect him to handle me with care when I don’t even acknowledge his part in all of this.
We used to work together for many years and in work we developed a ‘safety word’ to diffuse arguments in front of clients. It served to cut the tension and we rarely remembered to return to the row later. I think the time has come to return to the safety word. If you are considering a safety word I suggest the more ridiculous the better. The Man and I are experimenting with ‘being green’ as in It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green, the song sung by Kermit The Frog.
You have to say it in the Kermit voice for it to truly be effective. It’s science.