It stunned the critics. Despite being dubbed as a low-budget, small-town documentary, October Sky, a movie based on the life of NASA engineer, Homer Hickam, rocketed up the charts. Apparently, the story of four friends fighting the community expectations that tried to bury their dreams in the coal mines of West Virginia orbited close to home. But these were not the only expectations viewers identified with. Throughout the movie, Homer struggles with the expectations of a father who wants him to follow in his footsteps. When his dad finally relents and tells Homer he can follow in the career path of his “rocket science hero, Dr. Von Braun,” Homer replies, “Dr. Von Braun’s a great scientist, but he isn’t my hero.” This powerful declaration from a son who appreciated his father, despite the agonizing expectations he placed on him, resonated with audiences. Why? Because Homer somehow found the strength to survive the burden most of us bear at one time or another—the burden of expectations.
Expectations can either make couples feel worlds apart or closer. Editing expectations involves understanding why we have the expectations we have, and understanding why we have them means understanding each other in a deeper way. My wife might have an expectation that comes from a childhood wound. Once I understand that, I understand her better, and the reason behind her expectation now affords me the luxury of loving her in a way I didn’t know she needed to be loved. That’s the power of editing our expectations. But, it isn’t that easy.
One Saturday morning I “invited” Linda to help me replace the clutch in our Datsun B210. After jacking up the car and setting it on stands, I rested the transmission on my brand new hydraulic floor jack and slid under the car. As I loosened the last bolt from the housing, I asked Linda to lower the floor jack so that I could carefully slide the transmission out of the way. The next thing I knew, the housing was in the middle of my chest! I yelled, “Raise the jack.” Linda began pumping the handle frantically. The transmission didn’t budge. The only thing that moved was hydraulic fluid squirting out the jack’s valve each time she pumped the handle. Thinking that I was dying under the car, she broke into tears.
Although she laughs about it now, I should never have put her in that situation. She’d never worked on a car. She’d never used a floor jack. The emotional conflict I created came from my unrealistic expectations. And trust me, it wasn’t the last maintenance we had to do in our marriage!
Let’s not pretend editing expectations is always easy. For example, expectations are difficult to change when they come from perfectionists—people who are perfect at arguing, at manipulating, at everything except editing their expectations. A perfectionist’s fear of being found out (yes, most of them realize they aren’t perfect) short circuits their kindness. All their anxiety and angst is directed at their closest friend (the person they feel most relaxed around) – which, if you haven’t guessed already, just happens to be you.
So what can we do to redeem these relationships? Since some conflicts caused by unrealistic expectations won’t diminish by handing over the list or admitting areas of immaturity, the best place to start is to take our focus off our own pain. Although this may appear counterproductive, focusing on our spouse’s pain will change the frequency of conflicts created by his or her unrealistic expectations. If you can learn to see the pain beyond yours, you won’t immediately solve the problem, but you will begin to understand your spouse in a deeper way and you will reduce the frequency of the conflicts you experience.
Those of us who trust the wisdom of the Scriptures can reduce the frequency of these kinds of conflicts by sharing our hidden expectations and editing the unrealistic ones. Mr. Hickam redeemed his relationship with his son, Homer, when he let go of his expectations. Instead of burying Homer’s dreams with his own in the coal mines of West Virginia, he encouraged Homer to reach for the moon—which is exactly where Homer’s efforts in NASA landed mankind two decades later. Our resolutions may not orbit the silver screen in a movie like October Sky, but they will redeem our marriages and honor all of heaven. And maybe, just maybe, our willingness to understand the expectations of the person we’ve chosen to love will create in us the character of a hero.
Dive Deeper: If you are on the receiving end of unrealistic or unhealthy expectations—or sensing that you might be putting them on your spouse—click here for a few suggestions on how to enhance communication with your spouse.