The damage done to relationships by expectations

Why do so many marriages end in divorce? One common factor is that couples enter marriage with high expectations, and when expectations aren’t met, that’s when the relationship starts to crumble.

In one marriage, for instance, the wife expected her husband to provide her with a better life than she had as a child. In another the husband expected his wife to be sexy at all times. When those expectations weren’t met, the wife punished her husband by refusing sex, and the husband punished his wife by comparing her to other women.

And think of the damage done to children too, by the high expectations of their parents and teachers. At Graduation, for instance, it’s clear to anyone watching that the awards and the loudest applause are given to the top students in academics, sports and community service. Engrained into every child’s head by age eighteen, therefore, is the clear message that your value as a person is directly connected to how well you do.

So where does this nonsense come from? It comes from a culture of magazines and talk shows that bully us into thinking we’re never quite good enough in what we look like, or how we eat, think, play and live. The expectations they put on us are enormous, and the standards they set are unattainable by ordinary mortals, but we expect our mates and children to live up to them anyway because, we’ve been led to believe, only the brightest and the best are truly happy.

Is it any surprise, then, that young people are depressed, many of them to the point of wanting to end it all, because the pressure to be perfect by parents, teachers, coaches and peers is overwhelming? And is it any surprise that forty per cent of marriages collapse, because neither partner feels valued for who they simply are?

But what if a child or a mate knows they’re loved no matter what?

I love the story of one married couple that proved you could ignore cultural pressure and still be happy. They played in bridge tournaments as partners. At one major tournament the wife made a stupid mistake in the first round and blew the game for them, but they were so at ease in their relationship together that they went on to win the tournament despite the rocky start.

The secret? Neither of them based their relationship on never making mistakes. So even if they’d lost the tournament they could still drive home happily together. No angry blaming, no stony silence, no demand for apologies, and no damage done to their relationship because of expectations not met.


Expect nothing from no one, and see what that does instead

Do you find as you change for the better that other people’s behaviour bothers you more? In my own life, for example, I was extremely impatient with anybody who didn’t drive like me, which meant getting to one’s destination at the fastest speed possible and yelling at any idiots who got in my way.

But that changed. Amazingly, I’ve become a more sensitive driver, aware of the needs of other drivers, and I don’t mind taking my time so I don’t have to rush and make mistakes that put others in danger. Which all sounds very noble and righteous, but it created another problem: I can’t stand it now when other drivers aren’t as sensitive as me. Why can’t they just move up a bit, like I do, so I can squeeze through? Why don’t they watch the lights, like I do, so when they turn green we can all get moving and not get stuck with another red light? Why do they drive out in front of me and not get up to speed quickly, forcing me to jam on my brakes? And on and on the list goes, of people who drive me nuts because they simply don’t notice or couldn’t care less about other drivers and their needs.

It was a bit of shock, therefore, when it hit me that I haven’t actually changed that much, because in reality I’ve still got the same problem. My driving habits have changed, yes, but my attitude towards other people is still very much the same. I’m still expecting them to be like me.

It came as a huge relief, then, to realize that every expectation I have of my fellow humans has already been met by Jesus. I expect humans to be more sensitive in their driving habits, for example, and when they aren’t I blow fuses. But Jesus has already lived the sensitivity that every human needs, plus he’s covered every insensitivity with his death, and he’s also ready and willing to help anyone who turns to him for the help to live as sensitively as he did.

How, then, can I expect anything of people when Jesus has already lived the life of a perfect human for them? The only problem people have, therefore, is not knowing what Jesus has done for them and not turning to him for help. But I have it within my power to change that by showing them what happens in a human who does turn to him.

Or to put it in terms I like: Expect nothing from no one, and see what that does instead, not only to other people, but also to me.

Living up to expectations – it’s a killer

I’ve had to ask myself, “Have I understood Christianity correctly?” because the stress of it was killing me.

But how could Christianity be so stressful? Because it’s tough living up to a perfect standard – perfect prayers every day, perfect amount of Bible Study every day, perfect outgoing, serving, happy attitude all day, perfect thoughts every second, perfect work ethic, perfect Dad, perfect husband, perfect example in the community, perfect sermons, perfect health, perfect everything, because wasn’t that what Christianity was about, being a perfectionist and living up to the highest standards?

But what else could it be when Scripture tells us we’re “rewarded according to our works”? Doesn’t our eternal future – hell or heaven – depend on living up to the highest standards? If we do an outstanding job of meeting all the demands put on us now, the better our reward later, right? Isn’t that how Christianity works? I’d be a fool then, not to drive myself on relentlessly, being the best I can be.

But – I discovered to my dismay – it was killing me.

I was steaming full bore to an early death and making life miserable for people along the way as I deteriorated. But how do you ease up after 40 years of believing Christianity at its heart and core is living up to God’s demands as perfectly as possible – and doing whatever people expect of you, as well? Especially when people expect you to continue keeping up the pace you’ve been at, and expect the same level of service. You feel so guilty letting them down, or having to say No.

So I didn’t say No. I pushed on, meeting every demand put on me by God and people, never easing up, despite the obvious and rapidly frightening signs of stress on mind and body. But Christians don’t ease up, they “plough on regardless,” they go beyond the call of duty, they stand tall and indispensable, chin up, chest out, and give their lives endlessly in service to others, right?

Wrong, Galatians 2:20. “The life I live in the body,” Paul wrote, “I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Christianity is about living in the love of Christ, and trusting in his faithfulness. His faithfulness in what? That he will live HIS life in me, because, like Paul, “I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but CHRIST lives in me.”

Every day I expect Christ to do that, then. And that’s where my expectations now rest, not on myself but on him, that he will faithfully live his life in me – because his life is perfect.

Expectations, the great killer of love

I was watching an advice program on TV on sex, and it was tragic seeing what happens with couples. A wife rations her husband’s quota of sex each week; a husband loses interest if his wife doesn’t initiate sex, they blame each other, and on and on it went.

As I watched, the problem became all too painfully obvious. Each husband and wife had entered their marriage with high expectations. One wife, for instance, expected her husband to provide her with a better life than she had as a child. A husband expected his wife to be sexy at all times. And when a partner didn’t come up to expectations, that’s when the relationship began to crumble, and as soon as that happened, the couple lost interest in sex together too.

I had trouble watching the program because I learnt some time ago that the quickest way to wreck a relationship is to enter into it with expectations. Or, put positively, that the best way to build a relationship is having no expectations. I learnt that from God, who proves his love for us by dying for us while we were yet sinners, Romans 5:8. In other words, he began his relationship with us with no expectations on his part. He loved us at our worst. And that’s why, eventually, we come to love him in return, 1 John 4:19.

If only parents realized that too, that the way to build a relationship with their children is to love them “as is.” But what happens instead? They expect their children to get top grades in school, expect them to excel in sports, expect them to keep their rooms perfect, expect them be on their best manners with adults, expect, expect, expect. The child is hit from every angle with the parents’ expectations.

No wonder kids give up, get sullen and want to leave home. They can never be good enough for their parents, and eventually they reach the point they wonder, “Why bother? What’s the point in trying? Even if I do well, I’ll be told I could have done better. I give up.”

It sounds like many marriages are going the same way, too. Husbands and wives are giving up on their relationship because they can never live up to their mates’ expectations. They could, therefore, do themselves a world of good if they tried loving each other like God loves them. It’s a revolutionary love, because it’s love with no expectations. But it’s love that creates love in return.