Great Expectations

So, the other day, it happened again. I was talking with my mother. Telling her about going to the 1st birthday of my friend’s daughter. Then my mother started telling me about so-and-so who had just had their first baby. And another-so-and-so who had just gotten married. And still-another-so-and-so who had had their third child. And it just popped out of her mouth, that question that all single people dread. “So, when are you going to get married?”

I should have seen it coming. What with the big lead up and all. But I didn’t, and it took me completely by surprise. Understand that my mother married in her late twenties. Had a career before marriage. Has always been a proponent for education, independence and careers for women. She’s never really pestered me about getting married. And her desire for grandchildren has been mostly appeased by my brother and sister-in-law’s three rambunctious boys. But, we’d been babysitting the three nephews for the weekend, and had just finished bathing Baby Bean 3 in the kitchen sink, so baby-lust was riding high. I slipped out a glib response (at least I hope it was), and we moved on to her second and third favorite topics: pumping me to put more into my retirement accounts, and buying a house.

What my mother probably doesn’t realize is that I’m a commitment-phobe. And it’s not because I take commitment lightly. Quite on the contrary, I take it very, very seriously. As much as she has high expectations of my future marriage, I have much higher expectations of what marriage should be, having seen how well my parents have navigated the at times difficult waters of marriage and family, and having seen many good, and some poor, examples of friends’ and acquaintances’ marriages.

The other week, I was talking with a friend about marriage. And on my part, it came down to the fact that love, in and of itself, was not sufficient. One can be in love up to their eyebrows, but it just isn’t enough. There needs to be compatibility in many more areas for a marriage to work. Financial priorities. Diplomacy. Sharing. Problem solving. Compromise. One couple I knew had a book of questions that they pored over during their courtship. Some silly questions, but all designed to get the engaged couple talking about what their priorities and dispositions were. One silly series of questions I remember: Are you passionate about sports? Do you follow a team? Are you in a bad mood after your team loses? How long does it last? What helps you get in a better mood? A more serious series of questions dealt with financial matters: What are your financial priorities? Are you extravagant or frugal. Are you in debt? Is it more important to have money to spend now, or to save for retirement? What is your credit rating? And so on. When my friend let me page through the book, I was excited that something of the sort existed. Optimist-realist that I am, I like to think that a firm foundation of understanding and united goals make for a marriage that will stand the test of time.

Part of my problem is that I live a very compartmentalized life. I have friends at church. I have friends at work. I have friends for dancing with. I have friends for playing with. I have friends for deep talks with. And with a few exceptions, they mostly inhabit separate compartments. The idea of finding everything I want in one person, with whom to spend eternity with, seems an impossible task. And I often wonder how other people do it.

Do people enter marriage with the idea that their spouse will fulfill all their needs? I have several friends who are totally immersed in their marriages. We hardly see them because they tend to be so exclusive nowadays. However, they yet haven’t passed the third year mark, so I wonder if it’s just the honeymoon phase. Will their exclusivity last beyond year five?

Or do people enter marriage with the understanding that their spouses can’t fulfill every need, and find other people outside of their marriage to fill those needs that the spouse can’t fill? Met a guy the other night with a wife and two pre-teen girls. Guy loves dancing, and would love to share this with his family, but they’re totally uninterested. So it was that he came out dancing alone, and was very hasty about telling all the girls about his family.

Or do people just cease to need whatever their spouses can’t give, and learn to live without?

Or do people just suffer their spouse’s quirks? One friend really dislikes her husband’s proficiency for Catan and Halo, but lets him come play with us so that he can blow off steam. To his credit, he’s very solicitous of her, and doesn’t play unless he’s cleared it with her first.

So, for those who aren’t married yet, what are your expectations for marriage? For those who are about to be married, what are your specific expectations for your upcoming nuptials, and what kind of conversations have you had with your intended over areas in which you anticipate conflict? For those who are already married, how has your spouse filled or not filled your needs … spiritual, emotional, intellectual, etc? Is it what you expected, or not? If you haven’t found specific things in your marriage, how have you dealt with it? Have things gotten better or worse? How have your expectations changed?

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. Caroline says:

    Dora, I totally think that discussing a lot of those things you mentioned before marriage is super important. The discussion about finances is HUGE. I know a lot of people’s whose marriages have been destroyed/nearly destroyed by different approaches on that topic.

    I’ve been married 7 years now, and I feel like I totally landed a prize. Because he’s a kind, responsible guy, and I usually enjoy being around him. But that’s not to say that I agree with him all the time or that he fulfills all my needs. He doesn’t. He has no interest in movies/books/music/entertainment/politics/social issues/travel that I am drawn to. So I try to find others who share those interests. And i don’t fulfill all his needs either. I don’t live up to his hopes for a spiritual, Mormon wife.

    But I think we would both say that we have a great marriage.

  2. JohnR says:

    No matter how many needs ones partner may fulfill when first married, it’s important to realize that people (and relationships) are not static. Jana and I are both very different people than when we first married, and we’ve had to shift some expectations and negotiate others over the years. I doubt that expectations are ever completely met (except perhaps for a certain baseline).

    On a tangent, we have started telling our children that we do not expect them to get married or have children. We want them to live life fully, without imposing such restrictions on them. And anyone who says that you *have* to have a marriage certificate to experience life to the fullest, to love deeply, to experience depth, breadth and commitment, has a seriously limited view of life and love.

  3. Tammy says:

    You are right, love is not enough! I had been in love in a previous relationship before my husband, but I thank God that it never worked out. Sometimes I think about sending a thank you note to the guy for breaking up with me, but somehow I think that would come across as rude and petty. However the gratitude is totally real.

    On your other point about finding someone who fulfills all your needs, I don’t think that is possible. For example, my husband are very much best friends, but he doesn’t replace my need for female friendship. We moved to a new state last year, and I have yet to find a “bosom friend” yet. I feel that lack in my life immensely.

    Maybe it is even dangerous to find someone who fulfills all your needs, because then you wouldn’t have a need to reach out to others.

  4. MBT says:

    It’s such a fraught question, “When are you going to get married?” and sometimes I think it says more about the asker than the asked. I wonder if some married members of our culture are just so sure that the way they live is “the right way” that they can’t see the value in living a different life. I’m a Mormon woman raised in a very rural community in Idaho and most of my cousins married before they turned 20. I discovered that one of the best ways to answer THAT question from family and ward members was, “I’ve chosen an alternative lifestyle.” It didn’t tend to invite any more questions AND it was true. Being single (even in the mid- to late-twenties) in my family and local culture is an alternative lifestyle.

    I got married two months ago (finally, my grandmother sighs). Even as a newlywed who is definitely in the honeymoon phase, I feel a need for friends besides my husband. He is my best friend and has been for over a year. But we recently moved 1400 miles from the place that I went to college and have lived for the past seven years and I have no one to rely on for friendship and companionship but my husband (and our cats). He is wonderful and nurturing, but I need a girlfriend desperately. Sometimes I think it would be too much of a burden for just one person to meet all of the needs of another person.

    My husband and I talked a lot about our expectations for marriage and had the all-important discussions about whether to have children and how to manage our money before we got married. These were helpful and important conversations for us to have. However, there is so much that you just can’t anticipate when it comes to partnering and living with someone. How could I have known that he has a hard time deciding how to arrange kitchen drawers and cupboards and that trait of his would drive me crazy? But as long as we have the same priorities on the “big things,” I’m hoping and trusting that we’ll be ok.

    P.S. I hereby swear that I will never ask a single person when she or he will get married, NOR will I start conversations with single women with the question, “So, are you dating anyone?”

  5. Dora says:

    So, for those who do not share a lot of interests with your spouse, what was it that made you want to spend time with them and eventually marry them? Physical attraction? Similar goals despite dissimilar interests? Some other magical Y factor?

    Johnr ~ I can sort of understand not wanting your children to be restricted by cultural norms. However, and this is the traditionalist in me, I do believe that the fullest relationships are those that are committed. And by committed, I mean married, at least where marriage is possible. (Side note: I know plenty of both gay and lesbian relationships that are as committed as possible, that are waiting for the possibility of marriage). Personally, I can’t see myself being trusting or invested enough in any relationship outside of marriage enough to explore and be explored by another human being.

    And to those who are looking for a bosom friend (a’ la Anne Shirley) I do tend to notice that women need other women. I’m not sure if the same is for men. But whenever we’ve had our Wednesday night discussions, I notice that the after-discussion conversation lines generally end up being along the gender divide. Does having other women to confide in make it easier to not bother one’s spouse with girly stuff you know he won’t want to hear about?

  6. Eve says:

    I’m one who doesn’t share a lot of interests with my husband. I love the humanities. My husband loves business (although he also loves running marathons and photography and decorating the house, all skills I don’t have either). I always tell him that if I were forced into an MBA program I would flunk out from sheer boredom. And he doesn’t find poetry particularly gripping–he won’t even read fiction. At the time I started dating him, I was looking for someone very much like myself. I married my husband because I felt very strongly that I should. Time has made it evident to me just how fortunate I am to have married someone unlike me in important ways, someone whose practical interests balance my sometimes head-in-the-clouds approach to life.

    Like Caroline, I lucked out. My husband is a kind, considerate, responsible person. In eleven years of marriage I’ve never seen him lose his temper (sadly, I’ve lost mine more than I’d care to admit). He works very hard and treats me well and is completely faithful and wouldn’t dream of playing the priesthood card to insist that we do things his way. I’m especially grateful to have found a Mormon man who genuinely wants me to succeed and who encourages my interests and ambitions instead of feeling threatened by them.

    What we do have in common, I think, are a certain intensity about what we love and a great deal of pigheadedness. And maybe more important than either, an ease of communication. From our very first dates I found my husband so easy to talk to that I felt I’d known him much longer than I have. Being able to talk about even very difficult subjects has saved us.

  7. dangermom says:

    I think it is really important to recognize that love is not enough, so good on ya! Love is great, but all the difficulties of life can strangle it.

    I love my husband to death, but I guess we don’t have a lot of interests in common. We sort of observe each others’ interests with appreciation. He’s a computer guy who does physics problems in his head for fun. He likes to play Half-life 2 and to go target shooting. I’m a librarian who loves books and fabric, and I’m very involved with homeschooling our kids (whereas he is enthusiastic but not involved daily). But we like to tell each other about our interests; I think he’s an amazing guy, he thinks I’m a wonderful woman, so we get along fine.

    What do we share? Well, I recommend books for him, we love a lot of the same movies, we enjoy talking, we share similar senses of humor and love for each other and our kids. I lucked out in a big way; I can’t think of anyone else I have known that would fit so well with me. We are a good team and we work really well together. And it was mostly his idea to get married–I was a real commitment-phobe.

    I need female friends, and he needs guy friends. We are each close to our families. I’ve never expected him to be my all in all; that’s just not part of my picture of marriage.

  8. Tammy says:

    Mu husband and I have many thing in common, but many differences as well. Fortunately, we are both very flexible. He went with me to see Wicked, even though he had no interest in Broadway musicals. I sit and watch him play Halo even though first person shooter games bore me. We also tend to focus things we do have in common. We both love board games, so now after two years of marriage we have a closet full of them.

    I recommend books to him, and he tries to read them. (I gave him The Chosen, and he stopped reading as soon as he realized it wasn’t about baseball like the first chapter led him to believe!)

    Some passions have developed while we’ve been married, like home improvement, or working on the garden.

    Why did I choose to spend time with him originally? I think it was the way we communicated from the very first moment we talked. We’ve always been able to talk about anything. Plus he makes me laugh.

  9. AmyB says:

    I have several friends who are totally immersed in their marriages. We hardly see them because they tend to be so exclusive nowadays. However, they yet haven’t passed the third year mark, so I wonder if it’s just the honeymoon phase. Will their exclusivity last beyond year five?

    Our sixth anniversary is in a coupl of weeks. I have found lately that I feel like I’m emerging from some sort of cocoon. When I was first married I almost completely merged with my husband. I never wanted to do social things without him. I was extremely dependent on him and rarely wanted to do anything on my own. To some extent I think this is normal when a relationship is new- there is a renegotiation of the self as part of a couple.

    Lately I’ve suddenly had this newfound desire to emerge as an independent self. I like to go do things on my own. I’ve been making more social connections. I’ve been stepping outside my comfort zone, and it feels deep down on a visceral level like something has transformed in me. A new, stronger self has formed and it’s coming out. I think this will also garner a new phase in our marriage and I’m excited to see what it brings.

  10. Eve says:

    AmyB, I have always enjoyed…(oh, the horror) seeing movies all by myself. Some people find this shocking. I do like to go to the movies with my husband and with other people, but certain types of movies I like to see alone and simply be immersed in the experience, without any social dimension to distract from it. I also really don’t mind going to church alone. Sometimes I do miss my husband, but I’ve never felt the horror so many people describe of sitting in the pew all by oneself. In fact, I hate sitting with people I don’t know well or don’t feel very comfortable with–which makes me tense and unable to concentrate on the service–so I find myself fending off well-meaning people who are just trying to reach out and integrate me.

    I don’t know if it’s that I’m an introvert or just incurably weird.

    Sorry for the threadjack. A bit more on topic, I have sometimes felt frustrated with friends who marry and then disappear. I had a friend I made sure to keep in touch with throughout my engagement and the early part of my marriage–but as soon as she got engaged, she vanished entirely. But as your comment nicely illustrates, AmyB, I suppose adjusting to marriage is a different process for everyone and I need to be a little more tolerant of differences in that respect.

  11. Deborah says:

    This is a fascinating conversation — kind of like the ones I crave having with female friends in the flesh.

    I am acutely aware of the absence of a locally-located “bosom friend” (god bless Anne Shirley) and I think having one would be good for my marriage. I have three or four female soul-friends from my past who live in different parts of the world. On the occasion s(too rare) that we exchange emails or phone calls, I find myself not only bouyed, but more content with my marriage — because I remember that dh doesn’t have to be my *everything.* He is my best friend and we center our lives around each other, but my soul unfolds different ways with different people. He has unlocked portions no one else has ever seen — but he’s not God, and I can’t expect this one relationship to be *everything.* When I do — which is mostly when I’m feeling otherwise isolated — I find my resentment bubbling over things I wish were different about him. When I find other ways to fill myself up, I can allow our relationship to be what it is. And it’s pretty good . . .

  12. Dora says:

    It sounds like finding someone with whom effective and meaningful communication is the key, despite dissimilar interests.

    Eve, I sympathize with going to see movies alone. Let’s just call it an introvert tendency.

    It also sounds like there are women out there longing for a local bosom friend. And it makes me wonder how one gets started in the bosom friend search. What have been your experiences?

  13. Bookslinger says:

    As a middle-ager (pushing 50), my observations of married couples teach me that there are no hard-and-fast universal rules. You make your own rules, as long as both of you agree to them.

    And you can take it one step further. As the US Constitution has an amendment proceedure, couples can establish protocols on how to change the rules as the marriage matures.

    One of the biggest deal-killers that I’ve seen lead to divorce is when one spouse is so dead-set on the idea that a marriage relationship has to be an exact duplicate of their parents’ marriage, that they take everything for granted, leaving the important things unspoken, assuming without any verification that the partner has the same assumptions, desires, goals, and standard-operating-procedures.

    I remember one time at work when a young female employee came in the second day after her honeymoon with a black eye. Her husband smacked her because she didn’t have supper ready for him when he got back from work. (She moved out and filed for an annulment.) More recently, a guy at church showed up one Sunday with his new wife, and the next Sunday she was gone. There were some major attitudes toward married life, that they both took for granted, but in opposite directions, that didn’t come up until after the I-do’s and moving in together.

    That book of lists of questions sounds great. The next step from that might be a list of typical ways in which marriage relationships change with time, such as the decrease in the need to constantly be with each other, and even a change in sleep behaviors (less of a need to cuddle-sleep or spoon, etc.)

    I noticed that my parents were a lot happier when they started taking separate vacations when they reached a certain age.

  14. Bookslinger says:

    JohnR: “And anyone who says that you *have* to have a marriage certificate to experience life to the fullest, to love deeply, to experience depth, breadth and commitment, has a seriously limited view of life and love.”

    I sort of agree with that, except the use of the superlative. Unmarried people can experience a full life, love deeply, broadly, and committedly.

    Those who die young were obviously not destined for marriage and parenthood, yet they too can “fulfill the measure of their creation.”

    Still others live far into adulthood unmarried or childless. It wasn’t until I was 42 years old that I finally realized the reasons _why_ I was single, and realized I wasn’t supposed to get married, at least up until that point in time.

    But the word “fullest” is the crux.

    There are things that married couples and parents learn and experience that unmarried people, or at least non-parents, can’t learn in this life. This has been reinforced by comments made to me by those who married or became parents for the first time in middle age.

    And this is not soley a Mormon viewpoint. Many are the men who’ve claimed to have an increased understanding of Heavenly Father after holding their own first-born child.

    If we believe that those who die in infancy are entitled to exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom, then there must be some sort of learning beyond the grave. And if those who die in infancy can learn beyond the grave, then it would be logical to assume that others can too.

  15. Bookslinger says:

    Dora, my blog is often about meeting particular people at just the right moment, either by pure happenstance, or by being directed by the Spirit to be at a certain place at a certain time.

    My goal is to be worthy of marriage to someone with whom I will be comfortable the rest of my life. Not just a spiritual/temple-recommend kind of worthiness, but worthy of her, whoever she is.

    I know for a fact that the Lord can arrange for any two particular people to meet, even if they are very far from each other. And it can happen rather quickly if one or both of them are in tune with the Spirit.

    When you are ready, and “he” (whoever “he” is) is ready, you’ll meet if you stay in tune with the Spirit and aren’t afraid to follow promptings, and “go and do.”

    If it’s the Lord’s will, the Spirit is capable of telling us where to travel or visit, where to move to, where to work. By being open to such promptings, the whole world is virtually at your doorstep.

    And there are those times when you are doing what you normally do, where you normally do it, and look up, and there is someone that you were supposed to meet.

    Or as CS Lewis essentially said: “There are no coincidences.”

    “But in Friendship… we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting – any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say ‘You have not chosen one another, but I have chosen you for one another.’ The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.”
    -C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

  16. Caroline says:

    “It sounds like finding someone with whom effective and meaningful communication is the key, despite dissimilar interests.”

    Exactly.

    Bookslinger, thanks for sharing bits of your story and your thoughts. I appreciated them. I think I land more on John’s side of the fence, though, when it comes to living life to the fullest. While one can learn/do crucial things as a parent, I would like to think that one could also learn/do other crucial things as a non-parent in this life. And then in the next life hopefully there will be all sorts of new ways to grow.

  17. Anonymous says:

    “It sounds like finding someone with whom effective and meaningful communication is the key, despite dissimilar interests.”

    Yes, I think so. As it turns out, I like it a lot that my husband and I are so different; we complement each other and make a good team. When one of us is down, the other automatically goes up (so to speak) and takes up the slack.

    I can’t analyze Jane Austen with him, but I’ve learned a lot about computers and physics, and he’s enjoyed a lot of good books. We’ve got quite the mutual admiration society going.

    About bosom friends, I don’t really know. I have always been one to have a lot of different friends, but no local Bosom Friend that I do everything with. (My best friend is from high school and we live 8 hours apart.)

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