Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations in Marriage

Before you let culture or crazy notions guide your marriage, listen to what God has to say.

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If we aren’t guarded, unrealistic expectation can alter our demeanor towards one another.

Expectations. We all have them, whether they’re written down or floating around in our heads. Most conflicts in marriage could be traced back to unrealistic expectations. Marriage is about putting our cards on the table. Whether dealing with money, sex, or spiritual formation, the key is to have realistic expectations — based on reality. So how does a couple create healthy expectations for their marriage?

Understanding Unrealistic Expectations

First, we must look at how and why we set our expectations. For some of us, developing marriage expectations goes all the way back to youth group.

You know, creating those lists that leaders have their high school kids compose at summer camp during “the relationship talk.” As a single, we’re supposed to review those “Things I’m Looking for in a Mate” list from time to time and remind ourselves, “If I want to marry a queen, then I have to become a king.” Or something like that.

In some way, we all create mental lists. But often our expectations have little to do with reality and much to do with our fantasies. Consequently, an awful lot of bogus criteria ends up on our mental lists. Unfortunately, our expectation often drives our motives and behavior. So when the “richer and poorer” part of the vow becomes the reality of “poorer and poorer,” our lives are greatly affected. Or how about when his Ken or her Barbie measurements become disproportional.

If we aren’t guarded, unrealistic expectations can alter our demeanor toward one another. But these idealistic outlooks are usually rooted more in the desire for a kind of savior than a kind of spouse to help encourage us toward our Savior. Our unhealthy expectations derive from self-centered criteria. We set an impossibly high standard for him or her to attain. But it’s more for our benefit than our spouse’s. This is destructive in a relationship. In addition, we often focus on each other’s “veneer” — that thin, polished, surface layer — thinking it will provide us with all we need in marriage. Your marriage was designed to go much deeper.

In our Bible study, To Have and To Hold, we formulate the idea for newly married and engaged couples that intimacy is best defined as “into-me-see.” Our spouse sees everything about our life and still accepts us. The beauty of the marriage covenant is that each individual promises never to leave nor forsake the other. Thus, a healthy marriage continues to go deep into the inner caverns of one’s soul “until death do we part.” The focus must be a Philippians 2:3 approach of “considering others [including my spouse] as more important than yourself.”

Instead of focusing on the veneer, focus on criteria based on truth:

  • A godly character
  • Calling and direction
  • Personal values and beliefs about God and life
  • Authentic relationships
  • Humility that has you lay down your life for one another

If we aren’t guarded, unrealistic expectations can alter our demeanor towards one another.

Byron & Carla Weathersbee in Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations in Marriage

Dealing with Cultural Expectations

Several years ago, I (Byron) took our son to Spain on a rite-of-passage mission trip. As we walked around the port city of Malaga, taking in the local culture, we saw what looked like a stadium. Since Bo was really into soccer, it made sense to catch a game of real futbol. But as we got close, I realized it was a historical bullring. Since bullfighting is a symbol of Spanish culture, I thought it would be a great experience for us. We found an open gate, but as we walked in a man began speaking Spanish to us.

Bo and I were both clueless as to what he was saying.

The situation was classic as the man and I began to speak more slowly and loudly with each sentence when I realized we weren’t getting anywhere. I spotted a poster advertising the bullfight, walked him over to it, and pointed. He launched into a rapid explanation that I didn’t understand. But then I remembered my high school Spanish 1 class (or at least one vocabulary word of it).

"¿Dónde?” I asked.

And the Spaniard must have thought way back to his English 1 class, because he smiled and said with confidence, “The bull es broke.” I looked at him, then turned to Bo, puzzled.

“The bull is broken?” I said to the Spaniard. He nodded his head and smiled. Si. Bo and I were more confused than ever.

Well, since “the bull was broke,” we left thinking maybe a bull, or bullfighter, was injured. But as we walked away and saw the state of the arena, we finally realized it was under construction and that our friend was trying to tell us that the bullring needed repairs.

There are many wonderful aspects to culture: beautiful, moving art and ideas that make the world a better place. But culture can also provide background noise to distract us as we journey through marriage. 

Even the voices of church culture can unintentionally cause a marriage to misfire. You know, those little voices inside your head that say, “How could I have married someone with a sexual past?” Or those from the world, “Why do I have to put up with the constant conflict? Is it worth it?”

These clamoring messages can drown out God’s steady, gentle whisper. And sometimes culture influences us to make decisions we wouldn’t normally make otherwise. Cultural values swirling around can have a profound influence on our marriage. And many of those cultural values we base our decisions on — including those within the church — have little or nothing to do with Scripture.

Which isn’t anything you don’t already know ... but that doesn’t necessarily make those values around us any easier to resist.

Cultural expectations are difficult to identify and even harder to break at any stage of marriage. In Hebrews 11, the heroes of the faith are honored. Abraham, formerly known as Abram, didn’t start out as the poster child for faith. Like all of us, his trust in God had to grow. And when Abram’s faith in God, his “proof of what is not seen,” (Heb. 11:1) became uncertain, his personal and cultural expectations sometimes got the better of him.

He began doing things his own way. Case in point: After Abram and his wife, Sarai, arrived in the promised land, God told him that he was going to have descendants as numerous as the stars. God even revealed how it would happen: “one who comes from your own body will be your heir,” (Gen. 15:4). But there seemed to be a catch. His wife, Sarai, couldn’t get pregnant. Months slipped by into years as they wondered what God was up to. During the long wait, God was refining Abram’s and Sarai’s faith. 

You see, like all of us, when he began to doubt God, Abram began to revert to his cultural expectations. So, when it seemed that it was impossible for Abram and his wife, Sarai, to produce a son, she gave him her maidservant to marry, and Abram had a child through her. Abram and Sarai were products of their culture, saying yes to those around them, rather than seeking what God was asking them to say yes to. As Abram experienced, it’s often easier to look for cultural “solutions” than push through the difficult work of trusting God and His ways. 

So, how can you know whether you or your spouse are caught up in culture? Ask yourself: Are you looking first to God and His principles as revealed in Scripture? Or are you taking your cues from the world around you?

One of the reasons we need God’s Word is to help us get outside of ourselves to see the world through God’s eyes — to see His truth rather than our distortions of it.

Byron & Carla Weathersbee in Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations in Marriage

Listening to God

One of the reasons we need God’s Word is to help us get outside of ourselves to see the world through God’s eyes — to see His truth rather than our distortions of it. You see, by ourselves we can easily get swept up in our own culture simply because it’s what we’re immersed in. We so easily start doing what we see others doing, saying what others are saying, and making decisions based on how others would make those same decisions.

It’s easy to be persuaded by our culture’s expectations. But as we get to know each other throughout the different seasons of our marriage, we begin to see through that other person’s veneer to the true grain of his or her character. Therefore, if you’ve been married for more than two weeks, fortunately for our marriages the veneer starts rubbing off.

Abram and Sarai may have felt they were taking a step in faithfulness to God by having Abram produce a child through Sarai’s maidservant. But interestingly, the Old Testament writer uses words that mirror those in Genesis at the Fall: Sarai ... took ... gave ... to her husband (Gen. 16:3). Which sounds an awful lot like: [Eve] ... took ... gave ... to her husband (Gen. 3:6).

In other words, the writer of Genesis is telling us it’s sin all over again. The same tune in a different key. In trying to be faithful to what God had promised, Abram took matters into his own hands, failing to trust God for how it would come about. God had a destiny for Abram’s life — to be the father of many nations. But it wasn’t just the destination that God was interested in. Abram and Sarai’s journey of faith — the waiting, the testing, the refining of their character — were all important to God.

Abram, on the other hand, became so focused on fulfilling his expectation of the promise that he tried to make things happen himself. As a result, he mixed up one of the most important details between here and there: Saying yes to culture versus saying yes to God.

God probably hasn’t audibly told you, “Here are the expectations for your marriage,” the way He talked to Abram. But that doesn’t mean that He isn’t speaking to you. For a couple to create healthy expectations in marriage, they must go deeper than the veneer to understand those expectations must be rooted in truth. The Bible’s central theme is God revealing Jesus to a fallen humanity. As the reality of Jesus unfolds, a healthy couple “... will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32).

When we look forward to something we hope happens in our marriage, may it bring about true in-to-me-see instead of imaginary high standards that impede our love.

This article is adapted from HomeLife Magazine.

Byron & Carla Weathersbee serve as the executive directors of Summers Mill Retreat and Conference Center in Belton, Texas. They co-founded Legacy Family Ministries and have authored several marriage prep curriculum resources including To Have & To Hold: Preparing for a Godly Marriage.

To Have and To Hold by Byron and Carla Weathersbee

As you begin counting down to your wedding day or find yourself in the midst of the early years of marriage, it’s important to invest time and energy into building a lifelong partnership. 

Over 8 sessions, learn to develop your foundation as individuals and a couple while growing in your understanding of Christ and His divine goal for marriage. Allow Him to be your teacher, guide, counselor, and coach as you discover biblical principles behind living life to the fullest as a couple.