My husband and I have been blessed with a strong marriage from the beginning. For that I am very thankful. We know couples who really struggle the first year of marriage. That was not our story; we have faced a large variety of other trials that came with their own set of great difficulty. I tend to think that each challenge is hard, painful and comes with its own forms of deep grief caused by a set of expectations. In this current season of walking down an unexpected road of a major career change that demands more of my husband than anything ever has in his life, we have faced new challenges in our marriage. We have to ask ourselves often how do we prioritize our marriage when school demands 12-16 hour days every day of the week? Part of prioritizing our marriage comes with what I call expectation management.
We each approach every situation with a set of preconceived expectations of how something “should be.” These are formed by a variety of things. Culture, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, friends, family, our upbringing, world view and socioeconomic position, to name a few, form expectations. In some ways, expectations are not inherently bad. We wouldn’t accomplish things if we didn’t push ourselves in certain situations to meet expectations. Or we would maybe compromise for something that wasn’t God’s best if we didn’t have expectations. But expectations have a dark side. Particularly in relationship.
During this season where Chad puts an enormous amount of energy in learning a new skill set in a school environment that makes grad school look like middle school, I have taken on a support role. I am completely powerless most days to help him as he wrestles through content I know nothing about. This is new for us since we studied in seminary side by side. We no longer have a common language around something that takes most of his time. I am no longer the sounding board I expected to be as a wife. I can listen, but rarely can contribute thoughtfully on the topic. This is different than what life was like when we were vocationally pursuing ministry together. Coding is like a foreign language to me. And while my vocabulary on the subject is expanding daily, I know about as much as the size of an ice cube compared to an iceburg.
On top of that, we are becoming parents. As a woman, I am learning that there are a lot of secret expectations that I didn’t even know I had surrounding this life event. I have had to lay down expectations and dreams of what being pregnant together in this season would look like. Visions of shopping leisurely together for tiny baby things, preparation for baby at home, birthing classes, long conversations about names and parenting plans are all luxuries that haven’t been afforded to us in the last few months. It has been a huge internal battle of frustration and grief that we would be in such an intense season of schooling while leaping into parenthood.
Not only have those expectations had to die, so have the amount of time to we have to connect. The love language that outweighs the rest for me is quality time. I emotionally have to connect with people in my life through time that is intentional and rooted in conversation to feel loved. My poor husband wants so badly to meet this need but also feels immense responsibility to do his absolute best to prepare for our future in order to provide for us. At times I know he feels like these two things are completely at odds with each other. I confess that my husband has done everything in his power to manage the many demands competing for his attention. He is a disciplined student, devoted husband and passionate father. But there certainly has been sacrifice on expectations and hopes all around. It’s hard to see the grief in his eyes when I know he wants to emotionally meet me in my need to connect on a deep level, but exhaustion is so overwhelming that sleep is about to usher in at any moment. I also may never forget the look on his face the night before he missed his first ultrasound during our pregnancy. He wanted so badly to be there to see his daughter swimming around, but he couldn’t miss school to come.
Each of these area’s have underlying expectations for both of us that we are learning to navigate. Some of them are harder to tease out the roots of, but each of them have to be managed in order to not allow the dark side of expectation to sabotage our marriage. I am learning that this is a form of guarding our marriage from the enemy who would love to take us out. Let me share with you what I am currently wresting through regarding expectation management.
1. Expectations are dangerous and corrode relationships when they are unreasonable.
So often expectations become roots of discontentment when they are unmet. When we hold expectations, reasonable or not, we likely will be faced with disappointment if they don’t come to fruition. Disappointment can lead to bitterness if not dealt with properly. Also, expectations are not always reasonable. I find myself asking often, is this expectation reasonable to have of my husband/relationship? Is this something that is important to further the strength of our marriage? If it is unreasonable and does not further the strength of my marriage nor meet a need of mine that is a non-negotiable, I need to let it go. Instead of taking it immediately to Chad, I spend time praying through the expectation to discover whether or not it is legitimate and where it originated. For example, does this expectation come from a cultural expectation that is far from realistic, like waltzing through Babies R’ Us in total bliss and scanning adorable baby items for hours? Then as God speaks to my heart, I allow him to loosen my grip on the expectation so that I can be free from it. The root of the baby registry fantasy is really the idea that without properly preparing with stuff, thoughtfully scanning each item we need, we will fail as parents to care for our daughter. The dangerous root is that if my husband can’t spend hours with me shopping for baby items that he doesn’t care about our daughter. This is a fat lie that if not identified could create a big root of bitterness later. As I allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten my heart, my heart and my relationship are freed from discontent and unnecessary resentment and allows reasonable expectations to become the focus.
2. Communicating our expectations to one another is the most important thing.
Once I determine what my expectation is and pray through it, it is important for me to communicate my struggle with the expectation with my husband. This allows Chad to shed truth on a situation and know my heart. So often the expectation I have can be completely mitigated as soon as I invite him into the struggle. For example, he is able to remind me that being a good parent is not rooted in material possessions or time spent in a baby store. In this season, loving our daughter looks like preparing for our future in school. The hours he takes to thoughtfully code is his way of loving her. He wants to provide the very best for his girls. He also can gently remind me if I haven’t already navigated the root of the expectation, where it possibly originated. Most of all, it cultivates intimacy. The beautiful thing about having a conversation about expectation is that occasionally it is a reasonable expectation that the other person now knows about. He can meet the need if he knows. So sometimes Chad says to me, I want to meet this expectation because I can tell it really matters to you and I love you. He couldn’t do that if I never vocalized it. This takes humility and trust with one another and an enormous measure of grace to gently approach an expectation together. I cannot expect that just because Chad knows about my expectation that he will run to meet it. It could be the furthest thing from reasonable or even possible. But getting it out on the table avoids the root of resentment from springing up and makes it possible to work through.
3. Flexibility and allowing unreasonable expectations to die is a necessity.
Finally, I have to have a flexible malleable heart that the Holy Spirit can root out expectations. I have to be willing to lay down expectations that are not helpful for my heart or marriage. It is never helpful if I set my heart on an expectation and am then unwilling to compromise or evaluate it’s validity. I do not want to hold expectations over Chad’s head and imprison him. This is manipulative. Not only does this harm him, it harms me. My heart hardens as I set my hope on the expectation and ultimately Chad instead of Jesus and the hope I have in Him. By being flexible, I allow the space for necessary pruning of expectations so that I can be free in Christ. This also frees my heart to enjoy my marriage and the ways my husband is loving me. So often unmet expectations block our ability to see the blessings in our relationship. If I am so fixated on an area where something is unmet, I am not able to see and be thankful for the ways that my husband is loving me. I’d much rather be flexible and willing to allow things that cause death in relationship to die so that I can truly enjoy the gift God gave me in a husband.
This is a huge work in progress for me. It’s a weekly battle as I am constantly bombarded by new unrealized expectations rooted in my heart around becoming a mother. This week it’s around birth classes. Chad and I are going to take a class this weekend! But I am constantly battling the tension of expecting to be really prepared through these classes and the reality that if she comes early I have no clue what I am doing. This particular expectation is one I have with myself. I have to remind myself that I am not a bad mother, nor will my daughter’s birth be a disaster because I didn’t make it to a birthing class. Many women do this every day around the world with minimal resources comparatively. And so I remind myself to be gracious and gentle and do a little expectation management.