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Great Expectations

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Your expectations in marriage can make the relationship thrive or falter.

Expectations shape our experiences in trivial and significant ways. I remember listening to a radio psychologist many years ago (his show is no longer on the air for reasons which will soon be apparent!) A man called up to talk about his frustrated romantic weekend -- the one involving him, his wife, and their three-year-old.

They went away to a beautiful island but their son kept interfering with their experience. The last straw for this father was the child's behavior at the elegant brunch. He just wouldn't sit still and they had to leave after just 20 minutes.

The psychologist, in a combination of psychobabble and just plain stupidity, told the man that it was a power struggle between him and his child. He needed to go home and assert his authority.

The poor three-year-old.

Obviously, if you want to go away on a romantic weekend, DON'T take your three-year-old! And if for some reason you do take your children, don't expect it to be romantic.


This philosophy can be applied to that bane of parents' existence -- the family vacation. A family vacation is NOT a relaxing experience for the parents. (Is this news to anyone?!) More often than not it's quite stressful. I know -- I just came back from one!

A family vacation involves packing and unpacking and packing again -- separating dirty from clean, wet from dry, his from hers. It requires coordinating clothing, food, seats in the car and beds at night (but I slept in the cot last night!). It involves finding entertainment to satisfy all ages, coping with tired, cranky, disoriented children (and spouses) and maintaining your patience and good humor throughout.

If you think your children will be constantly grateful and happy because of all you're doing for them, then it's time for a reality check.

In fact, it's impossible! But what really makes or breaks the experience are your expectations. If you think you're going to relax by the pool and drink martinis with your husband, you'll be frustrated. If you think you're going to sleep late and have breakfast in bed, you'll be disappointed. If you think your children will be constantly grateful and happy because of all you're doing for them, then it's time for a reality check.

But if you decide the family vacation is for them, that you're facilitating their experience and creating wonderful memories, that you're strengthening their connection to you, that you're deepening their bonds with each other -- even as they're screaming, "He took my soda!" "She's taking up too much space in the car!" -- then you'll be satisfied.

When our children got in the car to drive home, they said, "That was the best trip ever." And I bit my tongue (they forget the struggles much quicker than we do) and smiled. When I focus on that part, it's wonderful.

And if I say, "What about me?" I'm sunk. For me, the vacation is most definitely for my family, but certainly not in the way suggested in travel brochures.


The most significant arena where our expectations thwart our experience is our marriage. Unrealistic or inappropriate expectations destroy many relationships. It's not just in the actions, it's in the attitudes that marriages thrive or falter.

The Wall Street Journal recently helped lay to rest some societal myths ("Moving On: Divorce Makes a Comeback – Poor Economy, Tense Times Prompt More Couples to Call It Quits," Jan 14, 2003; By Jeffrey Zaslow).

Myth #1: If you live together first, you'll know what you're getting into and have a stronger marriage.

As the Journal put it, "Mom was right." "Researchers now say that married couples who lived together are 50% more likely to get divorced." Why? Expectations. They entered into a relationship without a long-term commitment, without the expectation of forever so that's what they got.

If you expect 100 on exam, you may get an 80, but if you only shoot for 75…

If you don't make a commitment to a relationship from the start, you'll discard it when circumstances and tastes change.

When we go shopping we don't expect our clothes to last forever. They will go out of style, our bodies will change, our tastes will alter and we will discard those purchases, max out our credit cards and buy something new. If you don't make a commitment to a relationship from the start, if you're just "trying it on," you'll discard it when circumstances and tastes change.

Appropriate expectations recognize that of course things will change. Hopefully you'll both grow. Your goals and aspirations will mature; your character will deepen. Children will alter your marriage dramatically. Financial situations will fluctuate. Bodies will age and slow down. Are you prepared for that or are you living an imagined movie set?

Myth #2. You should immediately leave an unhappy marriage.

Do you expect your marriage to last? How you ultimately answer this question may be the key to your future. If you fantasize about divorce, if you allow into your thoughts and your vocabulary, if you make it part of your dialogue, you will make it a reality. Do you really want to? Check out this statistic: "Almost 80% of couples who were ‘very unhappy' in their marriages and agreed not to divorce, described themselves as ‘happy' five years later." (Ibid.) It's a sobering thought.

Myth #3. A good marriage doesn't involve fighting.

When two healthy, independent and thoughtful human beings come together, there will inevitably be disagreement. Dorothy Parker, or someone equally witty, once said, "If two people always agree, then one of them is unnecessary." Being with someone who has a fresh viewpoint stimulates thought and conversation. Being with someone who looks at the world differently from you promotes introspection and growth. Being with someone who always agrees with you may initially be great for your ego, but it pales in the long run. In the Talmud, R. Yochanan mourns the loss of his long-time learning partner, Resh Lakish. In an effort to cheer him up, his students find him a new partner who agrees with everything he says. R. Yochanan is not comforted. "How I miss Resh Lakish," he lamented. "He would always challenge me." There is even some research to suggest, "As long as you're an open-minded combatant, bickering can be good for relationships…"(ibid.) The secret is how your fight, not whether you fight. And of course, what you expected.

It's important to have a realistic view of this person you married. An old friend once told me something very simple and moving about her husband. " I know he's not perfect, but he's my guy."

No one's perfect. That expectation should have been the first to go. But it's more than that. When we marry we get a particular combination of qualities. Maybe your spouse is too quiet and you would prefer someone more outgoing. You have to appreciate that's part of the package you chose. Change one piece and the whole puzzle doesn't fit. No human being can fulfill another's fantasies or express for ourselves the things we don't have the courage to. Don't put that burden on your mate.

Expect to work hard and grow and deepen who you both are. That is the kind of expectation that will be rewarded.

Judaism promotes a realistic perspective on marriage. On the one hand, as Rabbi Yoel Schwartz points out, "Those who were reared on false dreams will be hurt by the roughness of reality." You need realistic expectations. You need to know who your partner is and you need to be prepared to make an effort.

On the other hand, along with that vision should be a clear sense of the beauty of the soul you've attached yourself to. There's a popular wedding song taken from the Talmud: "How does one dance before a bride? (By singing) 'the bride is beautiful and kind.'"

But what if she has some glaring defect? To the one who loves her, the good outshines the rest. In a good marriage, there are plenty of "defects" and drudgery, but the pleasure outshines it all.

Happy birthday to Sandy Schneider
Love Alan, Zachary and Rachel

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