How Expectations Affect One's Happiness in Marriage

 Epic Image Photography, used with permissionSource: Epic Image Photography, used with permission

A simple way to improve your marriage is to change your expectations. Better yet, drop some of them. If I sound cynical, please read on. I am a believer in the institution of marriage. However, the experience of both researchers and clinicians tells us that most of us have the wrong idea about how marriage might enhance our lives.

Expectations of marriage have changed significantly over the past few decades. For many generations, marriage was a means of gaining status, financial security, or a stable environment for raising children. In recent decades, the intentions of many individuals getting married have shifted to include friendship, having a confidante, romance, and, for some, finding a “soul-mate.” There is a common assumption reinforced by romantic novels and movies that “finding the right one” will lead to happiness.

Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, has shown us that expectations of marriage have increased in the past few decades while the time that people invest in their marriages has decreased (Finkel, 2017). These changes have correlated with all-time levels of dissatisfaction with being married. Internationally recognized relationship therapist Esther Perel seconds that observation. She tells us that expectations have risen worldwide and that they are particularly high in the United States. She identifies this as a problematic trend (Perel, 2017).

At the other extreme, research at the University of North Carolina's Couples Lab warns us not to expect too little of marriage. Donald Baucom advised us that people get what they expect, and when expectations are too low, unacceptable situations often result. Specifically, these findings were relevant to anyone in abusive relationships. Those who continue to tolerate emotional, verbal, or physical abuse will likely continue to be treated badly. This research emphasizes that we should at the very least expect kindness and respect.

Julia Roberts (mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus): “I try to call my mother, Betty, with more regularity because I think, What if Hazel didn’t call me for two weeks? I’m able to see her mothering now from a different vantage point.”

Psychologist Jim McNulty of Florida State University drew some interesting conclusions from his studies of newlywed couples over a four year period (McNulty, 2016). He concluded that high standards don't work in a marriage if partners have poor communication skills, a high level of stress, or little time to devote to the relationship. His advice was to match your expectations with your (and your spouse’s) ability to deliver time, effort, and social skill to the relationship. That advice is consistent with Finkel’s work, although it requires being honest with yourself about your willingness to put forth the time and effort.

The work of couples therapists John and Julie Gottman provides some answers to the question of what is reasonable to expect in a happy marriage. In their research, the Gottmans observed thousands of “happy couples” and identified common characteristics of those marriages (Gottman, 1999). Maintaining a friendship, creating a satisfying sex life together, and arguing in constructive ways were all high on the list. With regard to expectations, the Gottmans’ work pointed out that there will be problems that are solvable and those that are not. Once that reality is accepted, a couple can move on to solving the solvable ones and finding ways to manage the unsolvable ones, with less frustration about the latter.

"Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realize this as soon as they are born and they start using sleep deprivation to break you." - Ray Romano

Many clinicians have also noted the boost in happiness when couples carve out time to have fun together. Maybe it’s a date night, a mutual interest, or a shared sense of humor. If you don’t have fun together, you’re left with only the shared responsibilities. Whether it's for relaxation or adventure, taking some time for just the two of you helps to build awareness that you and your partner are on the same team. That awareness builds trust. The ability to resolve conflicts improves as the level of mutual trust increases (Gottman, 1999).

To sum up, the happiest couples tailor their expectations to what is realistic for their own circumstances. They do follow basic guidelines of kindness, respect, and trust that the other person has their back. If you want something more from your marriage, put more into it—more fun, more thoughtfulness, and more trust. As with most things in life, the more effort you put into it, the more you can expect to get out of it.