My husband and I got married young; we were both in our early twenties. In a lot of ways, we were still sorting out who we were and what we wanted out of life. Before saying “I do,” there was not much discussion about which family we would spend holidays with, parenting styles we favored, or any other issues that inevitably arise in a marriage. We were simply madly in love, and knew we wanted to share our lives together.
Almost 14 years later, despite some bumps in the road, we are still madly in love — and determined to stay together. That doesn’t mean it has been easy; relationships never are. They take work. And being the laid-back people that we are, it was work that we avoided — until issues inevitably arose.
I read something about relationships recently that I found to be poignant. It was the idea that the root cause of most contention in a marriage comes down to one thing, and it’s probably not what you think. It’s not money, sex, division of household chores, or issues with extended family (although these issues will most likely play in to it). Rather, it comes down to expectation.
We all have an idea in our head about how our relationship should go. Whether we realize it or not, we have certain expectations of our partners, and when they fail to meet them, it causes contention. We may have expectations about money, how much our partner works, or how they spend their free time.
A husband may, for example, expect that his wife will have dinner waiting for him every night. It seems old-fashioned, but maybe he grew up with his mother doing that, and has never known anything different. Actually, my sister married a man who grew up on a dairy farm, whose mother made three full meals for the family every day and did all the household chores. She never required that her children learn to wash clothes, clean, or cook … she just took care of it all on her own. It didn’t bode well for my sister, who had expected her husband to not only know how to perform basic household tasks — but to do his fair share of them.
Couples may also have different expectations concerning which holidays to celebrate, how to celebrate them, and who to celebrate them with. Expectations arise that are big and small, but they can all lead to trouble.
My husband and I sailed through the first years of our marriage easily enough. We were young, not yet set in our ways, and found our way of doing things together… and then we had kids.
Kids have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in a relationship. For us, contention reared its ugly head during those first few months with our new baby. Suddenly, I was caring for the baby 24/7 and he was still going fishing every weekend. I grew resentful. I had made assumptions that he would sacrifice his hobbies the same way I had stopped mine. This lack of communication became a wedge between us — one that took time and effort to resolve.
I have since learned that I need to speak up when something is bothering me (still working on that one) and that giving up all my hobbies just because I am a mom now is unhealthy. My husband has learned to sacrifice some of his free time for family time, and he also watches the kids for me so that we both can have breaks.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that we don’t even realize are expectations. For example, I grew up with a father who was prone to worry. Every night, he would secure the house, making sure all doors were locked, cars were locked, lights were out, etc. But my husband — I was surprised to find out — has never had any interest in making this nightly run. He will literally go to sleep with all doors unlocked and the garage wide open! So, I have taken on this chore. It’s not something I am upset about; I was just surprised to realize that I had expected he would do it.
The key to dealing with expectations is both communication and knowing when to let go. This type of communication should ideally happen before a couple makes a long-term commitment. I wish we could have taken some time to discuss what our different “roles” would be and what we expected of the other person, especially before our children arrived. Also, striving to see things from the other person’s point of view and making an effort to consider their feelings can go a long way.
In the end, a relationship is a team effort. It takes the willingness of both parties to communicate, sacrifice, strengthen, and love each other through it all. But take it from me — having these conversations before making a major commitment, and especially before adding children to the mix, can go a long way at preventing contention with your partner.