Negotiating Expectations in Marriage

Expectations are the specific beliefs that you have brought into your relationship about the way things will or should be. In general, if your expectations are met then you are happy. If not, you experience disappointment and frustration. Therefore, understanding and learning to negotiate your expectations is a key factor in your marital success.

Expectations in marriage, as in all relationships, are necessary and inevitable. They could even be considered the threads that make up the fabric of the relationship and hold it together. They define the structure of the relationship. They define what is acceptable and unacceptable. They determine the roles you play and how you and your partner interact and communicate as you go about day-to-day life. Although much of your stress and unhappiness in your marriage are due to a mismatch of expectations, the good news is that if you are willing to become more aware of your expectations and negotiate them in a respectful and flexible way you can greatly improve your life together.

Unexamined Expectations

Expectations are likely to create problems in three circumstances:

  1. They are unconscious. There are potentially so many rules or expectations operating in your life that you learned as you grew up that you can’t possibly be aware of all of them. The truth is that you become aware of them when they are violated. The best clue that you have an expectation operating is when you are either frustrated or disappointed. It is a great idea, at these times, to stop and ask yourself about the expectation that is behind your disappointment.
  2. They are unrealistic. People grow up in families with different rules and norms. Although we like to believe that our own model of relationships and the world is the best, the truth is that there are lots of different ways of viewing and getting along in life. This means that lots of people are unhappy because one or both partners try to impose their expectations onto the other. These couples end up in perpetual power struggles each believing he/she has to change the other or that the other is the cause of his/her dissatisfaction. One of the most important things you and your partner can do to move towards greater unity and satisfaction is to examine your expectations and make them flexible and realistic.
  3. They are unspoken. Your expectations might be conscious and reasonable, but if they have not been talked about then they are likely to be a source of frustration, disappointment, and conflict. Some people believe their partners should know what they expect (need or feel) without talking about it. However, partners in healthy marriages talk about and even negotiate their expectations.

So I’m going to ask you a few questions. Are you aware of your expectations? To what extent do they serve you? To what extent do they cause problems for you? How did you learn them and are you willing to examine and even modify them in order to create a more satisfying relationship?

A Practical Exercise

Here is an exercise. Take some time to think about your expectations in the following areas. On a scale from 1 to 5 (5 being high) rate your expectations according to three criteria: 1. How fair or reasonable are your expectations in this area? 2. How well have you communicated your expectations in this area? 3. How well aligned are your expectations with those of your partner?

1.  How do you divide up roles and chores around the house?

2.  Who works outside the home to provide income? What place do careers take in family life? How might this change over time?

3.  How do you handle money and finances?

4.  How do you make decisions? Who has more power in what kinds of decisions?

5.  About what kinds of things do you communicate? How do you share your feelings? Expectations? How do you handle conflict and disagreements?

6.  What is your philosophy on raising children? How do you share this role? Do you want more children? How do you discipline?

7.  How do you nurture each other? How much closeness vs. distance should you have? How do you express romance? What is your degree of emotional dependency during tough times?

8.  What do you do with your spare time? How much time do you spend together? How do you have fun and do recreation together?

9.  Who initiates sex? How often? What is acceptable and what is taboo?

10.  What kinds of “little things” bother you? What do you expect in each of these areas?

11.  How do you handle your relationships with in-laws? How do you decide how to spend time with extended family?

Negotiating Expectations

All couples have mismatched expectations. This is normal and not a reason to be discouraged or disappointed in your relationship. You are two individuals with different DNA, from different backgrounds and family systems. Of course you’re not going to see eye-to-eye on all matters. It is unhealthy to ignore your differences or try to smooth them over as though they don’t exist. The key is to learn to bring them into the open, talk about and even negotiate them in a way that both of you can support.

Here are some steps to accomplish this task.

Begin by reading or reviewing this article together so you both have an idea of the nature of expectations in marriage as well as the importance of discussing them and aligning them in mutually beneficial ways. If your partner isn’t interested in reading together, you can still become more conscious of the influence of your own expectations and invite some dialogue and negotiation in areas that are causing conflict.

Step One: Look for Misalignment

The first step in negotiating is to identify an expectation in which you’re misaligned. You may know because it is something you’ve discussed before. You may know because it’s an area that has caused one or the other of you disappointment or frustration. The expectation you choose to discuss does not have to be your toughest, most intractable. In fact, best to begin practicing this skill by negotiating an expectation that is not as emotionally charged. You want to give yourselves some experience negotiating before tackling more sensitive areas.

Step Two: Build a Pool of Shared Understanding

Step two is to build a “pool of shared understanding” by getting the point of view of each person on the table regarding this expectation. This is an incredibly important step. You are seeking to do two things—understand fully the viewpoint, feelings and needs of your partner and expressing your own viewpoint, feelings and needs. During this step you go back and forth by listening to your partner’s point of view and disclosing your point of view. “How do you see this situation?” … “This is how I see it.” Back and forth, back and forth, trading air-time, until you have a common understanding of one another’s point of view.

There are two mistakes you can make during this step. One is trying to convince (or coerce) your partner that your point of view is correct and their point of view is flawed. Doing this locks you into battle. You end up in a tug-or-war, fighting against each other rather than working together to solve a mutual problem. The goal is mutual understanding and not proving that your point of view is right (which inevitably makes your partner wrong).

A second mistake is when you confuse building shared understanding with problem-solving.  You are not searching for solutions during this step. You are simply trying to fully understand the point of view of each person. If you try solving the problem too soon you not only make it unsafe to continue talking but fail to gain a full understanding of the problem which limits the range of possible solutions as you’re ready to move to that step.

It is hard, emotionally, to build a pool of shared understanding. You may disagree with your partner’s point of view. You may feel threatened by what they are saying. Or you may feel you are giving up control of the conversation or your relationship. But you also grow in emotional maturity and unity as a couple as you learn to hear and accept the point of view of another even though it may differ from your own. This step is the key to not only negotiating expectations but resolving any type of relationship conflict.

Step Three: Ask for What is Important

The third step in this process is to ask what is most important to both you and your spouse. This is not yet seeking a solution. It is understanding the deepest needs or concerns that a solution needs to meet.

Let’s take an example of a couple exploring an expectation around how they spend time together in a given week, in this case on a Friday evening. He wants to catch up on one of his favorite shows on television. She wants to go to a club and dance. It seems like an impasse. But if they can look at what is most important to each of them, he might identify that he’s been under lots of pressure and demands and would like some quiet time to chill and rejuvenate. She identifies that she’s bored with her seeming mundane daily life and needs a little excitement and fun. Besides, she’s also feeling a little lonely and wants to connect with her husband.

They have probably discovered this as they’ve built a pool of shared understanding. Identifying what is most important is taking a step back and recognizing the deeper themes that emerged from this discussion. They make this explicit by asking the question: Now that we have a better understanding of each other’s point of view, what is most important to each of us? What are the deeper feelings or needs that need to be met as we look for a solution?

Step Four: Find a Solution that Meets Each Person’s Needs

Step four is finding a solution that will meet the needs of both you and your spouse. Your needs are valid. Your partner’s needs are valid. Having a deeper appreciation of one another’s point of view and knowing what is most important to each other, you can now begin brainstorming solutions that will meet the needs of each of you. Initially you brainstorm by getting lots of ideas out on the table without judging or criticizing them. Once you have generated a number of ideas, you select those that will best meet the needs or what is important to each of you. This is searching for a win-win solution.

To return to my example, the husband and wife who are trying to decide what to do with their Friday evening may come up with such ideas as: stay home tonight, go out tomorrow night. Stay home and wife joins husband on the couch watching a t.v. program. Husband takes an hour of personal time and then they go out. They stay home, husband gets some quiet time, then they put on some music they both like and dance. Of course, these are not the only options but are meant to give you an idea of how couples can be more flexible and creative in coming up with better, more meaningful solutions once they have built a pool of shared understanding and know what is important to each person.

This is not to say that every solution will meet the needs of both you and your partner equally in a given situation. But by being aware of one another’s deeper needs you can now be allies and co-partners in supporting one another in what is most important to both of you. This, by the way, is a far more important outcome than any given solution to any given problem.

Of course, not all expectations are equal. Some may be relatively simple and straight forward. Others may be more sensitive, complex, or challenging. But the basic principles and process are the same. Identify an expectation in which you are misaligned. Build a pool of shared understanding. Recognize what is most important to each of you. Then brainstorm and adopt solutions that tie into your deepest needs.

Check Your Attitude

I want to suggest that more important than the steps of negotiating (the mechanics of the process) is your attitude (come from) during the negotiation process. Your attitude will either facilitate or impede your progress and ultimately determine your success. For example, what is your intent? Is it harmful or helpful? Are you willing to forgive and let go of past grievances? Can you allow your partner to be imperfect? If you’re hurt or angry and want to criticize, vent or punish your partner then you’re not going to succeed. Building unity and a happy marriage has to be more important than holding onto past hurts or resentments.

Going through the process means you’re willing to learn. Your point of view or way of doing things is not the only way. Can you be influenced by your spouse? Can you begin to see the world from his/her point of view and be flexible as you seek solutions? Every solution won’t be perfect or your first choice. More important is that the two of you are working together.

Be willing to accept progress more than perfection. Work towards good solutions not perfect solutions. This will require some give and take. Of course, you’re going for win-win but there will be times that you’ll have to settle for a pretty good solution rather than your ideal solution.

Be willing to repair missteps rather than let them derail you. Your spouse may say something that upsets you. Or you may find yourselves deadlocked or in a power struggle or bogged down in a conversation that is going in circles. Rather than give up, ask yourself what you can do to get back on track at these moments. Can you loosen your grip on your position? Show more empathy? Soften your language, make a joke or do or say something that shifts the energy? What can you do that will bring a sense of unity to allow you to continue forward?

I could go on but I think this captures the spirit of what I mean by the right attitude. Your attitude will ultimately keep you on the path of opening communication, finding solutions, and even more importantly, building unity—the most important end point and reason you began this journey to begin with.

We tend to be aware that our unhappiness in our relationships is related to unfulfilled expectations. However, we’re often not aware of how to go about aligning these expectations. My hope is that by applying the four-step process (identifying a problem expectation, building a pool of shared understanding, identifying what is important to each person, and finding win-win solutions) you will work through these troubling areas and find greater satisfaction in your most intimate of all relationships. And remember that your success is not just an outcome of your negotiations but an input that flows from the attitude from which you approach these negotiations.


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