I recently overheard a conversation between two women that went something like:
Woman 1: Vince and I broke up.
Woman 2: I am so sorry. Are you OK? You were so in love with him– what went wrong?
Woman 1: I’m not sure what happened. Well, he stopped making me happy. Things became so serious after a while and we stopped having fun. Why would I stay in a relationship that doesn’t make me happy?
Woman 2: I hear that!
Marriage Help: The Role of Relationship Expectations
We all bring a wide range of expectations into our relationships—conscious and unconscious beliefs about the way things should be. And these beliefs have a profound impact on how we experience life; how we perceive, feel and react to events.
Think of expectations as a kind of mental filter that helps you make sense of the world; our expectations give us comfort by helping us predict and anticipate (to a certain degree) what will happen. For instance, you might expect your spouse/partner:
To treat you with respect; to be loving and supportive; to try to be responsive to your needs; to be a loving and caring parent; to help around the house; to contribute financially…
Frequently, our expectations work in the background, and as long as circumstances remain consistent with your expectations, life proceeds relatively smoothly. It’s only when our most valued expectations are contradicted that we have strong reactions.
Relationship Expectations and The Happiness Trap
Having expectations about how you’d like to be treated by your spouse/partner is very different from having expectations that someone should make you feel a certain way. Expecting to have an ongoing emotional experience (like happiness) as a result of marriage is problematic for several reasons.
~Happiness (like all feelings) is an emotional experience that is temporary—it has a clear beginning and end point (no one can exist in a continuous happy or blissful state);
~Happiness is influenced by both external (a job promotion) and internal (hormonal changes/mindset) factors. Some people have a mindset and emotional set-point that makes it more likely for them to reach a certain level of happiness, and others may struggle and need to work hard to reach that same level. That’s just the way it is;
~Your spouse/partner isn’t responsible for (and cannot undo) your unhappiness connected to: job dissatisfaction, a lack of social support, estranged relationships with family or friends, unresolved emotional issues from your past, feeling stuck creatively or spiritually;
~Issues of self-esteem and difficulties with self-acceptance (for instance, you might suffer from a history of depression, feelings of low self-worth and/or poor body image) can thwart happiness even when your marriage/relationship is running smoothly.
So when you assess your overall level of happiness or life satisfaction, it is important to look at the big picture of how your life is proceeding. Couples get into trouble when they place the burden of responsibility for their happiness solely on the marriage/relationship without considering the impact that factors outside their relationship have on them.
Of course the quality of your marriage/relationship will have a significant impact on you. Troubled marriages are associated with higher rates of depression and poorer physical health. But this isn’t the same as expecting that your happiness is contingent solely upon marrying Mr. or Mrs. Right. Instead, try for balance and realism in your expectations:
“At times my spouse’s/partner’s actions will make me feel happy, but my overall happiness is my responsibility.”
“While I do expect to be treated with dignity and respect by my spouse/partner, my feelings are affected by many different factors—some that I can change, others that remain beyond my control.
Wishing you and your relationship all the best!
Dr. Rich Nicastro