How Expectations Affect One’s Happiness in Marriage

A simple way to improve your marriage is to change your expectations. Better yet, drop some of them. If I sound cynical, please read on. I am a believer in the institution of marriage. However, the experience of both researchers and clinicians tells us that most of us have the wrong idea about how marriage might enhance our lives.

Expectations of marriage have changed significantly over the past few decades. For many generations, marriage was a means of gaining status, financial security, or a stable environment for raising children. In recent decades, the intentions of many individuals getting married have shifted to include friendship, having a confidante, romance, and, for some, finding a “soul-mate.” There is a common assumption reinforced by romantic novels and movies that “finding the right one” will lead to happiness.

Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, has shown us that expectations of marriage have increased in the past few decades while the time that people invest in their marriages has decreased  (Finkel, 2017). These changes have correlated with all-time levels of dissatisfaction with being married. Internationally recognized relationship therapist Esther Perel seconds that observation. She tells us that expectations have risen worldwide and that they are particularly high in the United States. She identifies this as a problematic trend (Perel, 2017).

At the other extreme, research at the University of North Carolina’s Couples Lab warns us not to expect too little of marriage. Donald Baucom advised us that people get what they expect, and when expectations are too low, unacceptable situations often result. Specifically, these findings were relevant to anyone in abusive relationships. Those who continue to tolerate emotional, verbal, or physical abuse will likely continue to be treated badly. This research emphasizes that we should at the very least expect kindness and respect.

Psychologist Jim McNulty of Florida State University drew some interesting conclusions from his studies of newlywed couples over a four year period (McNulty, 2016). He concluded that high standards don’t work in a marriage if partners have poor communication skills, a high level of stress, or little time to devote to the relationship. His advice was to match your expectations with your (and your spouse’s) ability to deliver time, effort, and social skill to the relationship. That advice is consistent with Finkel’s work, although it requires being honest with yourself about your willingness to put forth the time and effort. 

The work of couples therapists John and Julie Gottman provides some answers to the question of what is reasonable to expect in a happy marriage. In their research, the Gottmans observed thousands of “happy couples” and identified common characteristics of those marriages (Gottman, 1999). Maintaining a friendship, creating a satisfying sex life together, and arguing in constructive ways were all high on the list. With regard to expectations, the Gottmans’ work pointed out that there will be problems that are solvable and those that are not. Once that reality is accepted, a couple can move on to solving the solvable ones and finding ways to manage the unsolvable ones, with less frustration about the latter.

Many clinicians have also noted the boost in happiness when couples carve out time to have fun together. Maybe it’s a date night, a mutual interest, or a shared sense of humor. If you don’t have fun together, you’re left with only the shared responsibilities. Whether it’s for relaxation or adventure, taking some time for just the two of you helps to build awareness that you and your partner are on the same team. That awareness builds trust. The ability to resolve conflicts improves as the level of mutual trust increases (Gottman, 1999).

To sum up, the happiest couples tailor their expectations to what is realistic for their own circumstances. They do follow basic guidelines of kindness, respect, and trust that the other person has their back. If you want something more from your marriage, put more into it—more fun, more thoughtfulness, and more trust. As with most things in life, the more effort you put into it, the more you can expect to get out of it.

Follow us here and subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.

Originally published on Psychology Today. 


Add a Comment
  1. For what is unseen is very difficult to predict

  2. That is true

  3. This is really very true

  4. It has affect one marriage seriouly

  5. This Is Quite True

  6. This is just so perfect

  7. True word. Don’t expect too much from ur partner,to avoid disappointment.

  8. True
    Some ppl go into marriage for d wrong reasons

  9. Very much true

  10. Absolutely correct

  11. you are very right. Change your perception about marriage

  12. We should not be too persimitic in life

  13. That so Patectic

  14. We should learn to be optimistic!

  15. Wow Soo Really. I Have Really Experience It

  16. Dont expect anything from any body if you want to be happy always

  17. We shouldn’t have low expectations in marriage. We should at least expect kindness and respect. That’s a good point.

  18. Aristotle once said..never expect, expectations hurt..before you venture into marriage you simply have to hope and pray for the best, dont expect too much and end up getting a little.

  19. Marriage is not about giving and taking . Marriage is companionship

  20. Is seriously affecting marriages

  21. Thanks for the info

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *