In recent conversations with a newly-wed and another couple who have been married for over ten years, both wives claimed that they enjoyed a smooth and content relationship with their husbands because of the absence of expectations in their marriages.  I have been pondering over it ever since.  “What does ‘no expectations’ mean?  Does expectation-less guarantee a harmonious relationship?  Is a great relationship always a peaceful one?”

I know firsthand that unrealistically high expectations can bring a marriage to its knees.  After a six-year courtship, Joe and I entered marriage with such expectations.  He promised to make me happy all the time and I believed he knew about everything and therefore took his every word as truth.  After all, when we started dating, I was a high school freshman and he was already a graduate student from one of the top colleges in China that I strived to get into.  I loved him because he was intelligent, loving, patient, reliable and predictable.  He was attracted to me because in his own words I was heart-meltingly naïve, honest, pure and pretty.  And on top of everything else I revered and idolized him.

But things changed as time went by, I started to doubt if Joe really knew everything and he began to realize a lot of times he wasn’t able to make me happy.  Like all marriages that started off with noble intention and strong determination, ours began to show signs of strain and crack.  We tried to make it work only to find that the frustration and distance deepened.

Eventually both Joe and I turned to God and found the solution in Him.  By inviting God to be at the top of our marriage triangle, the walls between us crumbled as we moved closer to Him and submitted to His will.  Although it was hard, I was determined to follow the teachings of the Bible with regards to the role of the wife: helper and submission to husband’s leadership.  Even though Joe joked that I was submissive in my heart but not in my bones, he greatly appreciated and adored my effort.   We altered our lifestyle to support a loving relationship and also adjusted our relationship so that God was always in the center of it.  Overtime, we became the role model, an exemplary couple in church.  It was satisfying.   I also learned to look beyond Joe’s flaws and place my expectations on God, trusting that He would turn Joe into a Godly man according to His plan and timetable and a true spiritual leader.   I invested more and more time in the various church ministries and thrived.  Joe supported me all the way because he wanted me to be happy and I was indeed happy and fulfilling the purpose of my life.  Joe and I jointly taught Sunday school on the subject of marriage and family.  When I was asked to take a second term as the coordinator of Peter’s Fellowship, I pushed (or maybe even manipulated) Joe to the position, thinking that he needed the opportunity to serve God in a leadership role.  We attended a 3-day loving couple retreat and when they called for coworkers to serve as facilitators, I was ready to jump up and raise my hand.  But Joe put his foot down by making it clear he wanted no part of it and I backed off.    Years later when Joe and I were having the candid and yet painful heart-to-heart communications, he revealed that he didn’t enjoy any of the things done under the spotlight.  He did it for me, just to make me happy.

When Joe gave up his Christian faith, it threw our life into turmoil.  The stable triangular structure was destroyed and we had to develop a new lifestyle to rescue a relationship in serious distress.  I left the church that was so dear to my heart and expected Joe to fill the huge void in my life.  He couldn’t.  Desperate loneliness and a sense of defeat clouded us for a number of years.

Like 50% of the marriages in America, we were stuck and contemplating leading separate lives.  I embarked on a journey to find out who I was and what I really wanted out of life: I wanted a home more than anything else, and I wanted to be loved and accepted.  I also realized that I still loved Joe whether he believed in God or not.  It just didn’t matter.

From that point on, a healing and rebuilding process took place.  Joe and I were engaged in many deep discussions, no topic off the limit.  Some didn’t go well and almost sent us back to where this downward spiral started.  For years I had adopted many of Joe’s viewpoints and later both of us took on the biblical point of view, but some of the confrontational conversations brought out the startling differences between the two of us.  As I was trying to find clarity in my voice and Joe trying to hold onto his ideal of a marriage, we clashed and argued.  There were days when I sat across from him wondering who this man was and what I had got myself into.  I am sure he had similar thoughts about me.  At times I sounded and acted like a nutty woman.

All this engaged energy coupled with our resolve to make our marriage work proved to be invaluable.  In the end, I was able to articulate my needs and expectations to Joe, and by doing so exposing my most intimate vulnerability to him.  Gradually, he opened up to me in ways he could never have before and invited me into his complicated emtional world.

Expectations are ways of life.  They can’t be eliminated but can be managed.  So it’s perfectly okay to have specific and actionable expectations.  Better yet, you should really sort out your needs and wants, communicate to your partners and let them know what they can do to meet your needs.  If you say ‘I want to be happy’, what does ‘happy’ mean to you and what are some of the things your partner can do to make you happy?  Cooking you a meal or going to the movie with you?  If you say ‘I desire for my spouse to be more spiritual’, what’s your definition of ‘spiritual’?  You and your partner can’t meet each other’s needs if you don’t know what they are.  You may say “He should have known what I want by now!”  You may be surprised how much he doesn’t know, and plus your needs change over time.  At the same time, you should try to understand and meet the needs of the one who you chose to be your mate.

And it’s perfectly okay to fight.  I no longer view confrontations as a sign of weakness in a relationship.  But keep in mind these rules in the heat of the moment:
1)     Don’t attack your partner’s self-worth or motivation
2)     Don’t go off  track by bringing up old issues and problems that have been put to rest
3)     Keep focused on the issue that started the fight and make yourself heard
4)     Let your partner and yourself off the hook no matter whose fault it is
5)     Initiate or welcome the invitation to reconcile especially after a bad fight.  It can bring the much needed closeness and wipe out any lingering bad aftertaste.

No expectations may mean no pain.  But if you want an outstanding relationship instead of just an okay one, you’ll have to get out of you comfort zone and work on it.  God isn’t going to fix your spouse if you remain arrogant and closed up because he or she can’t be this or that.  As human beings, we need others to meet some our needs such as social or security needs.  If you allow yourself to be real and vulnerable, you may find yourself and your relationship at a whole new different level.