I had a set of unrealistic expectations going into marriage.
I was in my early 20s when I first met John, and I was completely enamored with the love of my life and soon-to-be husband. He could absolutely do no wrong in my eyes. Since dating was perpetually awesome, naturally I assumed marriage would be even more awesome. Why wouldn’t it be?
The actual experience of marriage shattered my idealism because when you’re living with someone day in and day out, you quickly move from expectations to reality. But after 10 years, I see John in a much deeper, more significant way. He’s no longer the man who could do no wrong. Rather, he’s a human being who has flaws, weaknesses and sins, just like I do. I’ve seen the beautiful sides to him, and I’ve also seen the ugly sides to him. Sides he’s also seen in me.
But in the reality of who he is, my love for him has been forged so much deeper. Not despite of his weaknesses, but because of his weaknesses. I see him—the real him—and I love him more deeply with each day. Because you can’t experience real love with a person until you’ve experienced the entirety of a person—the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.
FROM ASSUMPTIONS TO TRUTH
We all enter relationships with a set of underlying assumptions, even though we often don’t notice their existence. They shape our actions, choices, behaviors and feelings, and they influence our interactions. Our view of relationships is shaped by the relationships we engage in starting from the earliest years of our life. Everything we know about love begins taking shape based on how love was communicated to us in the early years of our childhood within the context of our family of origin.
Assumptions are shaped by past relationship experiences, from the way we interacted with our parents or the people who raised us, to the friendships we develop, to the people we date, and all the way through to marriage. And slowly, those assumptions begin making their way into how we interact with the people closest to us, which is oftentimes why they go unnoticed until we get married.
In gathering research to formulate the chapters of this book, I asked over 1,000 married people to identify what areas of marriage came with the biggest reality check. Here’s what they reported:
Opposites attract. We tend to be drawn to people who possess the qualities, strengths and personality traits we lack. It’s not uncommon for an introvert to be married to an extrovert. Or for the funny guy to be married to the serious gal. Or for the laid-back person to be married to the structured person. And it makes sense because we are often attracted to people who add something to our life. So yes, opposites do attract—but then they attack.
The very same personality traits that draw you to someone initially are the exact traits that can cause conflict later on. My husband and I have some significant differences in our personalities. We often joke that I’m the gas, and he’s the brakes. I tend to want to go, go, go through life, while his laid-back personality keeps us grounded and present. Our unique qualities add depth and balance to our marriage, but if we’re not careful, these differences can cause major misunderstanding and tension.
It takes a serious commitment to understand each other, communicate and allow our personality differences to become an asset rather than a point of contention. The many different layers to our personalities need to be understood and expressed throughout marriage.
I remember one of the very first times I worked with a couple who came in for sexual issues. They had been married for four years and hadn’t consummated their marriage. After a series of counseling sessions, we were able to dig deep and uncover the reasons. There was a lot of guilt and shame attached to the topic of sex, and those assumptions had to be undone through the process of counseling. The good news is that within a few months of counseling, they were able to move forward in healing and finally experience sex in a meaningful way.
These types of sexual struggles aren’t as uncommon as one would think—they just aren’t talked about. In fact, in my survey of 1,000 married people, 80 percent reported experiencing sexual struggles in marriage. So many people are dealing with the reality check of sexual issues and problems, and because of the stigma we’ve created surrounding this important topic, many couples end up needlessly suffering for far too long. We tell couples that just because they wait, their sex life will be great, rather than preparing them for the potential issues that might arise along the way.
No matter what aspect of sexual struggles you’re experiencing in your marriage, there’s hope for healing (much more on this in Choosing Marriage chapter 8: “Sex Marks the Spot”).
I remember my first holiday experience with John’s family shortly after we first got married because it was probably the first time my expectations of marriage were met with the reality of marriage. Sitting around the quiet Thanksgiving table with just a handful of immediate family was totally not what I was used to. At my Thanksgiving celebrations, there is no such thing as quiet or dining room tables for that matter—just one long, loud and crazy buffet line. Thanksgiving with his family was quiet, intimate and more relaxed than anything I’d ever experienced.
It was hard for me to adjust. I remember escaping upstairs during our first holiday together as a married couple and letting out a few tears in the middle of a lifestyle difference I was learning to adapt to.
No matter what aspect of lifestyle we’re talking about (social life, hobbies, preferences, activity levels, timeliness, cleanliness and so on), these differences can easily cause hardships in a relationship because of the nature of two different people learning to become one. But then again, they also have the power to connect two people in an intimate way. John and I have learned to see the extremes of the different families we come from and have decided to create a new family culture with a balance of social time and family time that works for us.
For some couples, particularly those who come from a more traditional perspective, managing gender roles in marriage can come with major conflict. I counseled a couple for whom this became a major issue about two years into their marriage. He was a hardworking country boy who wanted to provide for his wife and family. She was a talented, driven entrepreneur who wanted to take her business to the next level. But eventually his desire for a traditional family setting (the husband works while the wife stays home and takes care of the kids) clashed with her desire to maximize her talents and grow her business. After a few short counseling sessions, in which neither of them were willing to pursue a middle ground or sacrifice in any way, they decided to divorce.
It’s heartbreaking when something such as this proves to be the breaking point in a marriage relationship. But this doesn’t have to be the case for every marriage. There is always a middle ground that can be found for those who are willing to choose marriage versus choosing tradition. I’m happy to say that I am seeing this topic become less and less of an issue in our generation today.
Dealing with Extended Family
When you choose a spouse, you get their whole family as well. If you’re single, it’s important to be prepared for this reality and learn as much as you possibly can about the family before you become one of them. And for those of us who are married, it’s important to continually prioritize our marriages by setting boundaries with our extended family that simultaneously encourage relationship and reduce conflict.
I know one young man who is currently dealing with the verbal “stings” his mother-in-law tends to throw his way through subtle criticism. But rather than allow that interaction to destroy their marriage, he and his wife have learned to come together, take each other’s side and set boundaries for the type of interactions they choose to engage with her. We need to learn to choose marriage for our relationships to come out stronger.
You’re probably not surprised by this answer because we all hear the sentence, “Financial stress is one of the leading causes of divorce” thrown around. Whether we’re wired to spend or save, our differences can cause serious stress.
I met with a young man who had grown up in a home where there was financial instability and strain. He came to be a firm believer in working hard and saving wisely. His girlfriend, though, was on the opposite side of the spending spectrum. She wanted to enjoy life by spending along the way. As you can imagine, these differences in financial assumptions and beliefs were going to eventually work their way into the reality check of their future marriage. I was proud to see two people who could identify and begin working through these assumptions before they entered marriage.
I firmly believe the more we know about marriage, the better we’ll do. Knowledge equips us with understanding and understanding sets us up for success. When we know what to expect along the journey of marriage and relationships, we’ll be much more likely to choose the right path and make the right choices along the way. Whether you are currently single or married, it’s important to prepare yourself for the realities of marriage by understanding that each of the six categories above will come with a set of obstacles in some way, shape, or form; and then do your best to learn and prepare for those times.
Because the best remedy for dealing with our false expectations, is by immersing ourselves with truth.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Debra’s new book, Choosing Marriage, and is used by permission. If you’re looking for practical ways to navigate the reality of sex, conflict, communication, personality, confession and oneness in marriage, pick up your copy today! Available wherever books are sold.
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