Far too often, we assume that if we’re disappointed there’s something wrong with us or with our relationships  (either our marriages or our friendships). Actually, disappointment is totally normal and to be expected. The problem with disappointment is that it’s often sticky and as such, causes us to get mired in it.

As I write in Making Marriage Beautiful, according to Psychology Professor Dr. Jeffrey Bjorck, “Disappointment is an initial response to learning that our expectations will not be met.” Key word? Expectations. Many sources influence or shape our expectations. I want to briefly talk about three.

1. Family of origin (and I include ethnicity in this). The patterns and rituals that we followed when we were growing up typically habituate us in the same direction if we enjoyed our family—or the opposite direction if we’re in reaction to our family. Consider conflict, vacations, and holidays. How did your family do conflict? Were you allowed to express anger? Did your parents model how to have healthy conflicts? Regarding vacations, did you go on vacations ever year? If so, did you camp or stay in nice hotels? Did you vacation with your extended family? How did your family celebrate holidays? Were holidays a big deal or not a big deal? Did you watch sporting event or the Macy’s Parade or was the TV off? Did you get your tree on December 1 or Christmas Eve? Such things might seem incidental but when we carry our family traditions into our marriage and our spouse did not do things the same way, it can be combustible.

2. The culture at large. Here in North America, men are expected to amass power, withhold emotions (except at sporting events), and like power tools. Women are supposed to shop incessantly, love to chat, and be perpetually 32. For the most part, we try to conform to the expectations that cultures imposes on us. Additionally, we tend to assume that our spouse has received—and read—all the pertinent memos.

3. Church culture. Perhaps the most universal expectation that church or faith based cultures communicate is that marriages are to be monogamous. (Remember, not all expectations are bad. We need to have some non-negotiable expectations when we enter marriage such as fidelity and honesty.) Other religious expectations might include confessing sin, forgiving each other, and praying together regularly.

So let’s unpack one of the expectations I carried into marriage and see how it created years of conflict for Christopher and me. Early on in our marriage we disagreed on what it meant to be home in time for dinner. We’d establish what seemed like a reasonable time and Christopher would be predictably late. Not every day but on a somewhat regular basis. This would lead to a renegotiation and then a deja vu 2 weeks later. I felt disappointed that he could not do what he said he would do. My frustration gradually escalated to anger.

It was super easy for me to moralize in this situation. Adults are supposed to keep their word right? Our culture uses clocks. How hard could it be to notice when it was dinner time, stop working, and leave? Actually, it was plenty hard for him. Christopher has time optimism. Time is a metaphor. (Have I mentioned that he’s Latin?) I obey the clock. I am a time pessimist. (I am German. Germans make clocks and do not do siestas.) I wanted Christopher to be like me. I wanted him to pay attention to the clock and then disengage from whatever was happening and come home. He does not disengage well. There were multiple conflicting expectations based on our families of origin and our specific personalities.

About ten years into our marriage, we blew a gasket. When we look back, we can trace our difficult tenth year to a decade of feeling disappointment due to dashed expectations but never adequately processing what was gong on. Honestly, I think we kept expecting that the other person would change. (Free advice: this is a dumb strategy.)

Rather than expecting our spouse to change, we need to thoughtfully and prayerfully explore whether our expectations are realistic and godly. This is no easy task and it’s fraught with landmines. What seems realistic to one of you might actually be highly unrealistic for the other. Here’s a few thoughts that might help you unpack your disappointment and discern whether your expectations are the source of your troubles.

  • Pay attention to conflicts that happen repeatedly or cyclically. Try to disengage long enough to discern what’s really at stake. (See my last post.)
  • Understand what disappointment looks like for you. It might be anger, mild depression, frustration, or irritation. If you fail to recognize disappointment, it will take you longer to learn from it.
  • Do you ever moralize or judge your spouse harshly? Is it possible that your judgment is a direct result of a dashed expectation? After years of his chronic lateness, I assumed Christopher was incompetent because he could not come home in a timely way. He’s not incompetent—he just struggles with time management. My harshness helped me to see that just maybe, my expectations were part of the problem.
  • Are you able to acknowledge your own undeveloped areas or places where you struggle? If you can’t, it will be easier for you to blame your spouse when something goes amiss. By being willing to acknowledge our limitations, weaknesses, and struggles, we gain more ownership on the difficult dynamics in our relationship.
  • Do you struggle with needing to be in control? (In other words, wanting your spouse or friends to do things your way.) If so, spend some time exploring what’s motivating this impulse.
  • Do you avoid grief? You might be holding onto unrealistic expectations because you are avoiding the hard work of grieving. We all know this to be true: in order to have solid, fruitful marriages and friendships, we have to overlook many things. That’s not denial. That’s grace. Though it can be incredibly painful to let go of some of the expectations that we have for our spouse, our friends, or our marriages, by God’s grace, we can learn to let go of unrealistic expectations while staying in a posture of hope. I call this holy resignation. (You can read more on that here.)

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with asking our spouse to grow or praying for God to help them grow. But as when we attach to a specific outcome other than God being faithful and good to us, we might end up getting stuck in disappointment. We should also not let go of certain godly expectations such as fidelity, honesty, being free from addictions, etc. If these are a source of conflict, I encourage you to get help. When we learn to recognize our expectations and talk about them with our spouse, we can begin to process of understanding if and how they connect to our disappointments. This is deep spiritual work but ultimately will help you to create healthier and more more robust relationships.

Remember, every month I give away at least one new book to someone who signs up for my monthly newsletter. (See bottom right of this page.) You can read more about this topic in chapter 3-4 in Making Marriage Beautiful. Thanks for stopping by.

Photo credit: emiliozv, iStock