As every couple approaches marriage, they do so with expectations about many things. We develop those expectations through our experience of growing up. In our families – nuclear and extended – we do things in certain ways that become so familiar that we often don’t realized that there could be other ways to do the same thing. When other ways are familiar and expected by our spouse, it seems that he or she is doing them in ways that don’t make sense. We have seen divergent expectations, even in small things, lead to tension and bickering and, with some issues, even open fighting. We’ve listed below several items from our marriage or the lives of other couples we know. It is not comprehensive, but you will know what causes the tensions in your relationship.
We have known couples who become almost passionate about how their clothes is stored in a drawer or bicker over whether the toilet paper hangs from the front of the roll or the back. To some of us, these things appear to be silly, but they are easily solved – put your own clothes in the drawer and stop being silly about the toilet paper. Or whoever puts it on the roll gets to decide.
Of course, other issues are real and important. We discovered that we tended to spend money differently. Early in our marriage money was limited and we could agree on how to spend it on necessities. We made decisions together on large purchases, but tended to look differently at the in-between things. I liked, and still do, gadgets and electronics. Rita tended to spend money on the kids and was reluctant to buy anything for herself, even clothing. I kept very close track of our bank accounts and wanted to be sure that we didn’t overspend. When we began to look at our families and how our parents’ spent money, we realized that our attitudes reflected our parents and the financial conditions of our families as we grew up. As our financial situation improved, both of us feel freer to spend money, although Rita has loosened the purse strings more than I have. Sometimes she encourages me to buy things for myself or gives them to me as gifts when I think they are too expensive. Discussing the background of our attitudes toward money has made it easier for us to understand what the other’s response will be and we are better able to make financial decisions without conflict.
Holidays can be a big issue in many families. This is often complicated by the expectations of extended families. We have always lived about a 5 hour drive from both of our families. In the early years we traveled to our families for the Christmas/New Years celebrations and our families expected us to do so. When our oldest child was two, we decided that we wanted to create traditions for ourselves and our children, so we started to see the rest of the family after Christmas, but not on Christmas day. When our children grew up and started coming home from their homes in other places, we stopped visiting our siblings during the holiday and arranged other times during the year to get together. Now, with children and grandchildren living in other states we have maintained a tradition of getting everyone to our home at the same time between Christmas and New Years, but the timing and who is with us for Christmas day varies from year to year. We are excited that this year, for the first time in many years, we will have everyone here on Christmas day. We have come to understand that holiday traditions have to change with our family situation and that we have to be ready to accommodate the other side of the family for our children and grandchildren.
Decorating and furnishing a house is often a source of disagreement and conflict, which can be exacerbated by the issue of spending large amounts of money. Many men solve the conflicts in this area by simply withdrawing and deciding to simply live quietly without complaining with their wife’s decisions. We have always worked things out together in this area. It can take a while to make a decision, but we look until we find furniture, decorative items and colors that are satisfactory to both of us. We got some practice during our long courtship, when we had no money and sometimes spent dates wandering through home furnishing stores and pointing out to each other things we liked and didn’t like. Fortunately, our tastes are similar and that makes it easier.
When two people who marry are of different faith traditions, it is obvious that there will be a need for discussion and accommodation. This is most evident I when it involves that larger separation of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. Here is a link to an article with tips for having a successful interfaith marriage. But the differences can be surprisingly important even when the difference involves two different Christian groups. Many years ago I had a Catholic colleague who was planning to marry a Lutheran. Everything went well until they were planning the wedding and couldn’t agree on which church they would have the ceremony. They recognized that this would continue to be an issue in their marriage and chose not to marry. We are both cradle Catholics who grew up together in a very homogeneous community, so that we found much about our religious faith and practice in common. Even for us everything was not the same just from being who we are, intimate communication about our faith and religious beliefs has been important for understanding each other and staying close.
When areas of misunderstanding or unfulfilled expectations arise, we find that it is always important to talk about our different approaches. Many times, it is revealing to talk about how you developed that expectation. Often it is helpful to go back to our family of origin and our experiences while growing up. Knowing the history each of us brings to our marriage makes it easier to continue discussing the topic without leading to tension and conflict.
Let us know what you think.
Bob & Rita’s book: Forever and Day: An Invitation to Create a Marriage That Lasts a Lifetime is available on Amazon.com or by contacting us. Also available for Kindle and Nook. Make a retreat with your spouse, at home, on your time. Readings, relationship tips, questions for discussion.