How Can You Be Happy in Your Relationship Despite Differing Expectations?
If you’re anything like my husband Carey and I, whatever it is that reveals the clashes in your expectations will catch you off-guard. Like the time Carey casually mentioned to me, in the middle of a social gathering, that he was signing our son up to play football. My response?
I mumbled something like, “Uhhhh, we didn’t talk about that.”
This was followed by, “Hey Mom, I’m gonna start football…” My son smiled a wide and knowing grin. Mom isn’t going to be happy, but he knew he had his forces aligning.
This was followed by, “Hey Toni, did you hear the news? I’m recruiting your son for our football team – he’ll be awesome! It’ll be so good for him. You’ll see.” Our friend John’s smile was wider than my son’s grin.
I had some pre-conceived notions about what sports and activities our sons would participate in. Football wasn’t one of them. Hockey was. Football was too far over the line in terms of risk, so I thought. I started parenting with the expectation that my sons wouldn’t play football, but that was something Carey and I hadn’t talked about. Turns out, Carey didn’t have a problem with it.
It’s not that my expectation was rational, well thought-out or correct, or that Carey’s was irrational, ill-conceived or wrong. Along the way through life experience, we all develop expectations that we often don’t articulate until they’re challenged. I formed expectations around football that came from my family and culture growing up. Football wasn’t a central part of my experience, and not a sport that even my extended family participated in. We did play hockey, though. Objectively, not much separates hockey and football in terms of risk. They’re both rough sports that use well-designed equipment to lower the potential for injury.
However, the problem with differences in expectations, isn’t how to dissect them rationally. You’re not just going to be able to lay out the facts and think it through logically. No, the limbic centre of your brain will kick in first.
Turns out, I had some pretty strong feelings about this football issue. What do you do when your differences in expectations evoke powerful emotions such as fear, or anger?
It’s common for couples to struggle with each other over clashes in expectations. Why can’t he see the elephant in the room? How can she be so irrational? What’s with all the over-reacting? When you’re dealing with misaligned expectations, it’s easy to end up feeling as if you’ve reached an impasse. How do you move forward?
1. Make Some Space
When one or both of you get triggered into an overwhelming state of anger, fear or sadness, you both need to take a break. You’ve probably become familiar with the body’s response to being threatened, even when the threat is more imagined than real. Your body instinctively shifts into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode when you perceive a threat to your safety or integrity. The flood of your body’s stress hormones prepares your muscles for action, your senses for acuity and diverts blood flow away from body systems that aren’t urgently needed to meet this perceived emergency, such as digestive organs. Part of this reaction makes higher level thought and reasoning inaccessible. You may experience it as a type of brain fog. It is in this state when couples are more likely to say things they don’t mean, and do things they normally wouldn’t do.
If triggers have been problematic for you two, I want you to think about the difference between a relationship that’s unhappy versus harmful. For more on this, click here.
When you recognize yourself becoming triggered, the first thing you need to do is stop the heated argument. I’m not advising you to abandon it, but simply park the conversation for now. Before you have something to regret. Turn your focus on self-care, to calm yourself back down. Get some fresh air and practice deep breathing. Take some time to meditate or pray. Listen to that song that helps you ease back into feeling okay. Drink water (avoiding sugar or caffeine). Go for a brisk walk or do a workout.
With practice, you’ll discover what works best for you. Just know that you’ll typically need 20- 30 minutes and perhaps more before your ability to think rationally will return after you’ve been triggered.
2. Compare Notes
Once you’re both calm and composed, and undistracted by parenting or screens, compare notes on your personal expectations. After listening to your partner, challenge yourself to put what they said in your own words, stating it in the best light possible. Don’t say it with cynicism or sarcasm.
When you compare notes, one of you may not be inclined to talk through it. Talking about the issue or your feelings in detail may not be your style. If one or both of you will give a more thoughtful explanation by writing your thoughts down, or recording a voice memo when you have some time on your own, then do it that way.
It’s helpful to consider your spouse’s viewpoint as something to be curious about, instead of threatened by. If you think there are gaps, ask open questions. Whatever you do, if your goal is to move closer together instead of farther apart, avoid saying anything that sounds like an accusation or a put-down.
3. Be Creative and Accept Imperfect Solutions
Sometimes our communication over clashing expectations becomes more about defending our ground, our dignity or avoiding defeat than it is about figuring out the next steps that would lead to a mutually acceptable solution. I’ve heard it said, ‘it’s more important to do right than to be right.’ Doing right involves a lot of listening, while accepting with humility that your way isn’t the only way or ‘the right way.’ Doing right involves responding with kindness and respect even when you don’t agree with what your partner is saying. Doing right also involves digging out your creativity.
What?! Who says I need creativity in my marriage? Pretty sure that was nowhere in our vows…
In the early years of our marriage, I lived with the misconception that where we had our differences, my viewpoint was the better one. Strike one: it’s an opinion full of pride that leads nowhere good. Strike two: it didn’t stretch me to search for mutually agreeable solutions. Strike three: it’s a toxic attitude that will move you farther apart, yet I’m guessing what you really want is to move closer.
You may think of yourself as not being very creative, but your own attitude may have been self-limiting all this time. Or, you may be creative in ways you’re not paying attention to, say while cooking, fixing a small engine, or solving tech problems. You may not be displaying creativity because you’re not giving yourself the opportunities.
In any event, once you both get entrenched into positions that you’re defending with a linebacker’s intensity, the whole argument becomes destructive and self-defeating. There are more than two solutions to almost every problem you face, and approaching the issue with open-mindedness and creativity will help you identify all the other options. You just can’t do it when you’re focused on defense.
And, release the idea that your solution is the perfect one. If your partner doesn’t agree, it’s now inherently imperfect. There are likely many imperfect solutions that are workable.
It’s possible to live in the tension of unresolved issues, as long as you still have a foundation of love and respect. What’s more, it’s possible to remain happy and overall satisfied as a couple, with some issues unresolved. Dr. John Gottman, marriage expert and researcher, explains why here.
If you’ve reached an impasse where your expectations are clashing, seeking professional help can be invaluable. Reach out to a counsellor, psychologist, mediator or expert in the field for advice. Look for someone with experience and well-sourced referrals. My husband Carey and I sought out help when our marriage was in trouble, and we’ve continued to over the years. You can’t put a price tag on the value of achieving peace, gaining self-awareness, and building a bond of wholehearted love.