Colliding Expectations: When Couples Can’t See Eye to Eye

“So, who takes out the trash in your house?” Seems like a simple enough question; but just for fun, ask the question at your next social event and watch how couples react. The household trash is often the topic of great debate, as people seem to hold strong opinions about whether the task is either the job of “the man” or “the woman.”

We all bring a variety of opinions and expectations into our marital relationship. These beliefs were formed as we watched our parents model the respective role of husband and wife. As we became more socialized, we learned how other couples interact and how they share responsibilities. Even our exposure to the media added to our perception; we watched couples like Ricky and Lucy, and Mr. and Mrs. Brady function as a marital team.

Thus, we form our individual marital definitions based upon our collective ideologies of a happy marriage by what we have observed, and the messages we unconsciously absorbed from those observations. Our partners, however, may not have experienced the same relational models that we have, and that’s when expectations collide.

My parents may have been more independent and egalitarian, while my husband’s were more dependent and traditional. My parents split household chores, while my husband’s father worked, and his mother filled the role of the traditional homemaker. In our own marriage, he may believe that my role is to handle the domestic issues, while I believe those obligations should be shared. We each approach our marriage with varied opinions about what is appropriate for a wife, contrasted with what is appropriate for a husband. Unless we’ve had similar experiences, our definitions can present obstacles in our relationship. Debates and disagreements may happen each time during discussions about such values; one partner believes his way is right and the other believes that hers makes more sense.

Husbands and wives often rate the strength of their marriage based upon the number of arguments they seem to have as compared to other couples they know. But a happy marriage is not necessarily quarrel-free. In fact, some of the most fulfilling marriages engage in topics of discussion that can instigate debate or challenge. Because men and women are wired differently, when they disagree it seems logical to assume that one party is right and the other is wrong. But as gender distinctions often prove, it’s the fact that men and women are simply different that they view most issues, no matter how trivial, from a dissimilar point of view. The key is to acquire the ability to listen to your partner’s views, recognize the root of his or her wishes, and have the freedom to express your own in turn. Most of the time, there is not one simple answer. But with appropriate discussion you can learn to appreciate one another’s needs, and formulate a solution that is right for both of you.

Dr. Richard Blackmon, a psychotherapist who has worked with hundreds of couples, suggests that couples employ the A-B-C rule. “‘A’ signifies the shared tasks and activities that couples agree about,” he explained. “In the ‘B’ category, the task or activity is not ideal, but is a manageable compromise on the part of either couple. ‘C’ is the level at which an event will cause resentment, or divisiveness in a relationship.” Too many ‘C’ experiences make for a bad marriage.

Blackmon advises couples to function within the A and B categories as often as possible, and when issues that might be classified as a C level occur, it’s wise not to expect a quick answer or resolve. Those are the problems within a romantic relationship that disrupt romance, so they take a great deal of work. “When an issue is not rational, it’s emotional. And any situation that lingers within the emotional realm is complicated and may not have an easy or logical solution,” he said.

Couples can learn to cooperate and understand each other’s viewpoint by establishing their own marital policy, which when agreed upon, should willfully override that of the expectations they each brought to the relationship. Stating messages as simplistically as, “This is how my parents handled this, but why don’t we do it this way … ” can help to update standards and resolve a thorny issue. For instance, when it’s time to determine who should manage the household finances, it would serve the couple well to discuss what is most important and what is least important to each. The values that are most important to each person should be honored and respected by the other at any expense.

Working as a team, with deliberate goals and shared values is one key to growing a strong marriage. Another is making a conscious effort to release expectations and ask questions instead of making presumptions. And, of course, figuring out who’s going to take out that trash after all can’t hurt either!


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