Shelving Expectations

In 1969, I (Rich) was in seminary, worked full time at a local hospital, and spoke at various churches on the weekends. LouAnna was home each day with our newborn and a two-year-old. She saw our Saturdays as opportunities to become reacquainted and make improvements on our love nest. I longed for time to study and sleep. We each had a hidden list of expectations and resented each other when our expectations were not met. The “shelves incident” drew our attention to the problem.

One Saturday morning we were standing in our garage surveying the mess that had slowly pushed our cars onto the driveway. We looked across the street at our neighbor’s garage. I noticed their nice cars. LouAnna noticed their nice garage.

“Look at the shelves they have!”

I acknowledged that they had shelves, stumbled back into the house and subtracted “clean the garage” from my Saturday “to do” list. While I subtracted, LouAnna added “attractive shelving” to her list. That morning her list looked like this:

1. Spends time with me and the kids
2. Stays on his diet
. . . .
25. Builds shelves

Two weeks later, we visited the local hardware store. For some reason we stopped in front of the shelving display. Again, LouAnna mentioned how “nice it would be to have shelves in our garage.” I thought that working full time, attending seminary, and ministering on the weekends were “nice” things, too. Shelves were not on any list that I knew about. At this point, her list looked like this:

1. Spends time with me and the kids
2. Stays on his diet
. . . .
5. Builds shelves

In two weeks the shelves had moved from #25 to #5!

Several weeks went by and we found ourselves again standing on an even smaller patch of garage floor. LouAnna said, “When are you going to get us those shelves?”

“Shelves?” I sensed tension. The list now read,

1. Builds shelves
2. Builds shelves now!
3. Spends time with me and the kids
4. Stays on his diet

Today, you should see the shelves in our garage!

Shelving Expectations 101
Excuse the pun, but in marriage, it’s important to learn to “shelve” our expectations, to replace them with a deeper understanding of the needs of our spouse. In our counseling, Marty and I often use Paul’s words to help young couples work through expectations. The Apostle Paul told the church at Philippi, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). The principle of looking to each other’s interests can help us avoid expecting our wives or husbands to meet our own. The following principles can help us learn to shelve our expectations.

Step 1: Hand over the list
Sit down and list your expectations and hand it over to your spouse. When you hand it over, the discussion needs to focus on the list rather than the reasons behind the list. Family therapist Paul Coleman suggests that rehearsing specific phrases can help us convey our concerns in a tender and honest manner.[1] When handing over the list, the conversation could go something like:

I value you and want to improve our relationship. I believe that we may be in conflict over what we expect from each other. If we could write down our expectations, it would allow us to examine them in a nonthreatening way.

Before you have a misunderstanding, get an understanding.” —Richard Davis

Step 2: Prioritize the list
The “shelving incident” forced LouAnna and me to hand over our lists. We discovered that she was unaware of some of my expectations and I was unaware of hers. We prioritized our lists and decided we would focus on the important issues and work on the others when time allowed. Prioritizing is easier if we remember a few guidelines:

  • First list, then define.
  • Be clear and avoid emotional statements. “Pick up your clothes” is better than “Our room is a pigsty!” For our spouses, the second statement could elicit a defense mechanism that could push them toward resentment and bitterness.
  • Move character qualities such as gentleness and integrity to the top of the list. Unfortunately, we often trade these character qualities for clean rooms. It’s important to edit our expectations to include what matters most.

Step 3: Compare the lists to Scripture
Compare each item in the list with passages from the Bible. In our pre-marital discipleship, Linda and I (Marty) have the couples use a Bible concordance to look up key words in their lists. You can write this list on a napkin when you’re out for coffee Ask the following questions about each item:

  • “Does the Bible put the item in the same place on the list as I do?”
  • “Will my list help grow the fruit of the Spirit in my life?” (see Galatians 5:22)

If the answer to any of these is “no,” you’ll need to change your list so that the items line up with what God says is most important. The list should be prioritized with the most important item listed first and should contain three to five items. Too many items confuse the conversation and prolong solutions.

Concentrate on listing items that are intrinsically important. Items like, “pick up your stuff,” should be placed after items like, “when under duress, speak to each other with kindness.” “Picking up stuff” is a task; “kindness” is a character quality (see Ephesians 4:32).

Step 4: Protect the lists
These lists are confidential and should be seen only by you and your spouse. If confidentiality is not guaranteed, the lists will not be honest. (Also, avoid using the lists to respond to recent frictions or frustrations. Focus on perceived character concerns.)

Step 5: Pray through the lists
James wrote that in the middle of our trials we can pray for wisdom and God will give us wisdom abundantly and without accusing us (James 1:5). We also need to ask God to mold the hearts involved—theirs and ours. Before you pray together, reaffirm your belief that having shared expectations will enhance the relationship. Pray in a neutral place, not in any place either party claims sole rights to. When the meeting place is public, people usually keep their voices at a respectful level. It should also be a place where you can sit for an extended period of time.

Step 6: Construct a new list
The beginning should emphasize fact finding. “I found it interesting that you included ____________ on your list. How is this important to you? How is this important to us?” Beginning this way allows the meeting to start without confrontation. Focus your energies on understanding what your spouse is saying, rather than on trying to get him or her to understand what you are saying. Don’t try to “sell” your list.

When the first meeting is finished, review what you have discovered. Set the next meeting time and reaffirm this process. Agree with each other that this new list will become the “mission statement” for the next month of your marriage.

Step 7: Draw the line
The line is the barrier that discourages expectations below it from moving to the top of the list. Everything above the line formulates the important issues we agree to work on. (See our previous article on Editing Expectations) At this point, agree that items below the line will not affect the relationship. Remember, you should show patience and deference, but you cannot let someone’s list govern your life. You must draw the line.

Step 8: Periodically review the list
Right after a birthday or holiday are good times to review these lists. (You’ll begin to associate that day with the review of your expectations.) Remember, success is never guaranteed but—should we decide to do nothing—failure is.

It is amazing how hidden expectations can destroy a relationship. It is equally amazing how writing a list together can help us assemble the right pieces and turn even our “shelving incidences” into, well, nice garages.

[1] Paul Coleman, How to Say It for Couples: Communicating with tenderness, openness and honesty. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall Press, 2002).


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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