Marriage 101

Your Expectations ©2010
by Liz Currin, Ph.D.
Atlanta Area Psychological Associates

Whether you're engaged or already married, it's never too late to take a look at your expectations and see how they stack up against the realities of married life. Here we'll take a look at ten common misconceptions about marriage.

(1) My spouse and I will live "happily every after". With almost half the marriages in this country ending in divorce (and the percentages are much higher for second and third marriages), a fairy tale ending is by no means guaranteed. However, this doesn't mean that the two of you can't take steps to preserve and enrich your relationship.

(2) My spouse would never cheat on me. It's not just high-profile politicians, athletes, and entertainers who cheat. Statistics on infidelity vary widely, but it appears that about 60% of men and 40% of women will have an affair at some point during a first marriage. The internet has opened up all sorts of new avenues for infidelity, as well, ranging from pornographic sites, chat rooms, online dating sites (including those for married individuals who want to have an affair), and even virtual worlds. While men and women disagree on whether or not intense internet relationships constitute cheating, it has been estimated that one-third of divorces arise from affairs which began online.

(3) My spouse and I will be everything to each other. While it's not uncommon for happily married people to refer to a spouse as a "best friend", it's probably unreasonable to think that you don't need anyone or anything else. Expecting another person to meet all your emotional, social, and intellectual needs is an enormous burden to place on that person. You'll both feel more satisfied and your spouse will find you more interesting if you maintain a healthy social network and pursue some fulfilling individual interests, in addition to all the things you enjoy doing with each other.

(4) Now that we're married, I can relax an let myself go a bit. One of the pleasures of married life is being comfortable enough with your spouse that you can "let your hair down", so to speak. But that's not a rationale for abandoning physical fitness, good grooming, and good manners. Think back to your dating days and how much effort you put into both your appearance and your behavior with your partner. Doesn't your spouse still deserve your best?

(5) Neither my spouse nor I will ever change. If you think about it, the idea that people don't change much after the age of 18 or 21 is pretty absurd. While basic personality may remain fairly stable, most of us change to some degree in response to life events, for example, educational attainments, loss of a job, birth of a child, death of a parent, illness or disability, etc. We also develop new interests and relationships, and these, too, can contribute to personal growth and change. Couples will also find that they need to seek the right balance of predictability and stability versus novelty and excitement over the course of their marriage.

(6) Children will bring us closer. Yes, but ... Children are a physical manifestation of a couple's love, but parenthood brings with it a major redefinition of self and partner. You're not only husband or wife, you're also a father or mother, and you have a whole new set of responsibilities and demands on your time. And, because you still have that same 24 hours in a day and 7 days a week, those demands for nurturance typically are met by taking time away from your relationship with your partner. And time with your partner may now be devoted to discussions about child-related issues, further siphoning off "couple time". Clearly, parenthood also entails taking on additional financial responsibilities, which can further stress a family.
Parenting adolescents can be particularly difficult. At this age, children are trying on new roles, striving for independence, and, in the process, often trying their parents' patience. Furthermore, they are blossoming sexually at a time when their parents may be experiencing some physical decline, some decrease in sex drive and performance.

(7) The sex will always be as good as it is now. Not long ago, it was the norm for couples to wait until marriage to have sex. In 2010, most couples have been physically intimate by the time they make a lifelong commitment. In the early stages of a relationship, sex tends to be frequent and satisfying. Several years into the marriage, however, it's not uncommon to see a decline in sexual satisfaction. There are both biological and psychological reasons for this. But couples who approach sex with a sense of fun and exploration generally maintain higher levels of both marital and sexual satisfaction.

(8) It's OK if we disagree on how we spend money. Did you know that disagreements over money are one of the major reasons couples divorce? A sound marriage is built upon financial transparency. Both partners know how family financial resources are used; discretionary purchases are discussed and negotiated, if necessary; and neither partner keeps money "secrets", such as credit card debt or poor spending habits. The time to talk about money and your financial goals, such as saving for retirement or a child's college education, is before you get married.

(9) If we really love each other, we shouldn't have to spell out what we want/need from each other. Yes, it's very nice when a partner anticipates your needs and wants, such as a backrub, a cold beer, some quiet time away from the children and household responsibilities. But the reality is that we're not mind readers. It's important to let your spouse know what you need and to thank them for meeting those needs. A common refrain in couple therapy is "Just tell me what you want, and I'll do it"!

(10) If this marriage doesn't work out, there's someone better for me out there. The problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn't acknowledge your own role in your relationship issues. When you always look outside the relationship for a solution, you miss the opportunity to identify and confront your contribution to relationship problems and to improve your marriage. Start by asking "How can I become a better partner in my current marriage?"

Do any of these ideas about marriage sound familiar to you? Don't let that discourage you. Awareness of your expectations about marriage is a good starting point for improving your relationship. If you and your partner need some help in any of these areas, an experienced mental health professional can assist you.