Can Expecting Less of Your Partner Improve Your Relationship?

It is estimated that around 40% of all first-time marriages end in divorce – with two-thirds of second or third marriages breaking down. Researchers at Northwestern University argue that the problem isn’t cheating, the kids leaving home, or even the acceptability of divorce. Instead, they found a surprising result: people expect too much from their partners.

Marriages Are Changing

Professor Eli Finkel, professor of psychology at the Kellogg School of Management, is the lead author of the study called The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow Without Enough Oxygen, which was published by Northwestern University in 2014.

Professor Finkel found that Americans today are expecting more complex involvement from their partners than in the past. He says that while people demand more time and energy being put into the marriage, they actually put in less effort than in the past. Professor Finkel explains people are expecting more from their partners in terms of their personal fulfillment and how involved their spouse is in their spiritual journey.

He worked with psychologists Chin Ming Hui, Kathleen L. Carswell and Grace M. Larson to develop a new theory of marriage, resulting in the study that was set for publication in the journal Psychological Inquiry. In a interview Finkel said,

married couples are “asking less of their marriage regarding basic physiological and safety needs, but they’re asking more of their marriage regarding higher psychological needs like the need for personal growth.”

Marriages In The Past

In the 1800s, the primary functions of marriage were around meeting basic needs like food production, shelter and physical safety. People married less for love and more to provide help on farms, establish homes, and raise families.

Over the centuries, as cities grew and civilization developed, people became physically more comfortable; with food, shelter, electricity and employment being readily available; resulting in a bigger shift towards satisfying emotional needs. This also brought about a change in the expectations of marriage – with people increasingly marrying more for love and companionship, says Professor Finkel.

Marriage after 1960: Around this time, people became attuned to their spiritual journey on earth and also wanted partners who were not only aligned with their morals and values, but who would assist them in their personal journey towards self-discovery and personal growth. “In contemporary marriages,” Professor Finkel says, “Americans look to their marriage to help them ‘find themselves’ and to pursue careers and other activities that facilitate the expression of their core self.”

When this does happen – that spouses find someone able and willing to help in the journey towards self-discovery and personal growth – this results in very happy marriages, says the professor. But this is not the norm. Sadly, while people are expecting more of their partners, they appear to be willing to put in less effort themselves to meeting the personal, emotional, and life goals of their partners.

Men and women are busy, they work long hours, have to get the kids to school and back, maintain a house while balancing work and health. Spouses in fact spend less time with their partner than ever before, says Professor Finkel. Considering that so many partners expect so much more from their spouses, this clearly poses a big risk for the safety of marriage.

What Can You Do About Your Relationship Expectations?

The answer is really simple but the opposite of what many couples want: expect less of your partner.

“You can demand less from your partner, focusing less on resource-intensive self-expressive needs, or supply more time and other resources into the marriage,” says Professor Finkel.

Try to think about how you can meet your own needs. If you know that you want your partner to be more involved, think about how realistic this is. Is he/she in a very demanding job? Would it be possible for your partner to devote more time to activities that you would want to do? Is what you want from your partner really fair or realistic?

If the answer is “yes,” then you need to have a talk to your partner to see how you can go about addressing this. But if the answer is “no,” perhaps it is time for some honest self-examination. Ask yourself – are you perhaps expecting too much? Do you want to have the perfect life, the perfect family, the perfect husband? The quest for perfection can be very draining – not only on yourself but for your spouse as well.

It is also worth pointing out that you cannot expect anyone else to make you happy. In our age of self-gratification, fast food and perfect TV families, our impatience for happiness and personal success can be exhausting – making us even unhappier.

Relationship Perfection? There Is No Such Thing

Instead of wanting it all – why not try wanting less. Take a few lessons from the Buddhists, who believe that too many expectations lead to disappointment. Buddhists say that craving things leads to suffering. Not getting what you want makes you unhappy and when people disappoint you, you feel hurt.

But this is not their fault. The fault lies on your side – you were expecting your husband to know you were feeling down, for instance, by just looking at you and seeing your face. Sometimes you need to tell him what you are feeling.

Interestingly enough, Buddhism also teaches that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Even if you got your wife to go on long walks with you, talking about what you really want out of your lives together – would she give the answers you were looking for? Would you be satisfied if her views were different to yours?

How To Improve Your Relationship and Yourself

Instead of expecting your husband or wife to be instrumental in helping you become the person you would like to be; think about how you can achieve this – by yourself.

Someone who knows a bit about personal growth and fulfillment is His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. His take on happiness and perfection is quite interesting. He once said,

“We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate. Right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.”

OK, so the Dalai Lama isn’t married and dealing with the trials and tribulations of parenthood. But he is in exile and knows quite a lot about suffering. What he is getting at is that to achieve happiness and a happier marriage, it is important to get your thinking process right. Focus on the things you want to achieve in your life and think about how you can make it happen.

After a hard day at work, instead of hoping that your husband will notice and spoil you with a lovely foam bath, why not think about how you can treat yourself? Taking responsibility for your own feelings, desires, and needs can be very empowering.

More importantly, it could save your marriage.


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