Working Through Unreal Expectations

Each of us has expectations that help us formulate and identify satisfaction in our relationships. Bosses have lists for employees; employees have lists for their bosses; friends carry lists for each other, as do husbands for wives and wives for husbands. Expectations come from experiences, friends, value systems, families, cultures, churches, the Bible, and our entertainment choices. Every relationship is in some way governed by expectations. Some expectations benefit us and cause growth. Others, especially unrealistic and hidden expectations, bury our dreams.

The following list shows how expectations impact our marriages and why it’s important for us to learn how to edit.

  • Unmet expectations intensify minor issues
    If putting the cap on the toothpaste is important to us, then each day we find the tube without the lid fastened, the expectation moves closer to being of primary importance— even though, logically, it isn’t. This is why minor issues often become major irritants. When the expectation reaches the top of our list of unmet expectations, divorce is a toothbrush away!
  • Expectations put us in a parental role
    Whenever our spouse doesn’t comply with our list of expectations, we find ourselves using parental language, “If you had done ________, this would never have happened.” This makes our partner feel like a teenager again (and those are years many of us don’t want to relive).
  • Expectations reduce the relationship to a performance
    For better or for worse ….” Most couples mean these vows—until the “worse” part includes living with unmet expectations. When this happens, we stop ice dancing to the careful choreography our spouse created. We slip and slide our way through the routine, but we don’t measure up. The relationship becomes a performance, not the combination of planned and spontaneous elements God wanted us to cut up the ice with. We begin to feel loved only for saying and doing the right things—not for being the right person. Paul reminded us in Romans 5:8 that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We need to remind ourselves that our love should never be based on how our spouse performs. It needs to be based on who she or he is before God.
  • Expectations create high-maintenance relationships
    High maintenance relationships could be defined as those that require constant attention and energy to attain what should feel relaxed and natural. I (Marty) could have asked my wife, Linda, to write this section. Most of our early conflicts resulted from my unrealistic expectations.

If you are on the receiving end of unrealistic or unhealthy expectations—or sensing that you might be putting them on your spouse—here are a few suggestions you can follow that will help edit expectations into proper perspective:

Share Your Expectations
Redeeming a marriage damaged by expectations involves understanding the differences between hidden and unrealistic expectations. Many counselors believe that most relational conflict caused by expectations disappears when hidden expectations are brought out into the open.

  1. This can be as simple as planning a “hidden expectations picnic” where, as you set out each food item, you share one expectation that you feel you’ve hidden from your spouse.
  2. During this process, it’s appropriate and helpful to apologize, and to use what my wife calls, “the good f-word – forgiveness.”

Exchange Your Expectations
Exchanging expectations will allow you to be honest about the unrealistic expectations you put on your spouse.

  1. Sit down together and write out on a napkin one expectation each of you “feels” is unrealistic.
  2. Share your unrealistic expectation without discussing any solutions.
  3. Spend time in separate prayer, then meet again to discuss how the unrealistic expectation makes you “feel.”
  4. Check to see if the “unrealistic” expectation reflects anything the Bible says is important. If it is a clear expectation from God, it’s not unrealistic. However, if you have to spin Scripture to make it fit some expectation you’d like to have fulfilled in your marriage, that’s dishonest. Focus on God’s grace toward us, his patient love, his mercy, his sacrificial character. You should be able to agree that if the expectation isn’t found anywhere in the Bible, it is unrealistic.

Adjust Your Expectations

  1. Choose one expectation that, although you admit it is “unrealistic,” you feel too immature to handle without help. (Your conversation should sound like this, “I just can’t handle you leaving the lid off the toothpaste. I know it’s unrealistic. I’m working on it and praying about it, but right now, I just need you to help me with it.”)
  2. Each week after the church service, review the lists. This will help you understand each other at a deeper level and will help you practice Paul’s instruction to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25).


Marty Trammell, PhD. is the co-author of Redeeming Relationships and Spiritual Fitness. He has written for several publishing houses and serves at Corban University and Valley Baptist Church. Marty lives in Salem, Oregon with his wife, and best friend, Linda. They enjoy hanging out with their three sons and two daughters-in-law. Rich Rollins, D.Min. is the co-author of Redeeming Relationships (featured on Family Life with Dennis Rainey) and Spiritual Fitness. Rich has served as the Executive Pastor of Valley Bible Church and written for Focus on the Family and Truth for Today. Rich and his wife, LouAnna, have two daughters and sons-in-law and enjoy jazz, reading, and camping in beautiful northern California.

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