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Emily V. Gordon Headshot

Communication, Expectations, and the Key to Avoiding Divorce

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COMMUNICATION

What do you expect from a spouse? I don't mean lofty things like "unconditional love" or "to honor me above all", but rather, what concrete behaviors do you expect your spouse to perform on a daily basis? What do you think your spouse should do if you're angry, and maybe most importantly, what do you expect him/her to do around the house?

A huge sore spot I've seen in couples, personally and professionally, is that these spousal expectations, which we all have mapped out in our heads, are never communicated to our spouses. We all have an idea of how we like to be treated that we would like others to adhere to, and somehow we've gotten in our heads that the perfect person for us will just know what this code of behavior is. This is both unfair and a setup for disaster- people always need to be given parameters of how to treat you, and they can decide for themselves if they'd like to participate.

I'll give you two examples of how unspoken expectations can cause problems in a relationship. In the first, a wife wants her husband to help out more around the house. She is on her way home from work, she's tired, and she's thinking of the huge pile of dishes that were in the sink that morning. She thinks "I am going to be so pissed if I come home and he hasn't done those dishes." She gets home, and sure enough, her husband has not done the dishes. She feels angry and resentful, and starts doing the dishes herself, perhaps snapping at her husband when he greets her.

For a second example, a husband has had a lousy day at work and is in a terrible mood. He would really like some extra attention from his wife. He gets home and is quieter than usual, his face set in a scowl, hoping she'll notice and give him a hug. She instead starts asking him about their phone bill, and the husband shuts down emotionally, barely speaking the rest of the night. His wife never finds out he had a bad day at work.

In both of these examples, if the person had taken a moment to help the spouse understand what he/she expected out of the situation, the misery and resentment could have been avoided.

Now, I know some of you are thinking "But isn't it obvious that both partners should help out around the house?" The answer is no. Unequivocally, individual human beings who live together will always have different standards of what a "clean house" looks like. Further, some people believe that taking care of household chores like paying bills is a replacement for cleaning. If you don't simply communicate with your spouse what household tasks you would like them to do, you are setting yourself up to be angry.

In regards to the second example, some of you are probably thinking "Doesn't it make things less special if I have to ask my spouse to be affectionate with me?" and the answer, again, is no. People all want and need different emotional responses--some people like to be talked down when they're angry; some people want to be left alone. A person who is going to be interacting with you every day for the rest of your life needs to see your owner's manual, or they'll keep responding in a way that isn't beneficial to either person. In every romantic relationship, I find it's best to sit down and literally explain how anger, stress, sickness, or sadness looks in you, and how you want people around you to handle you. This way, when your partner responds to your stress with a backrub and peanut butter sandwich, you feel both loved and listened to. You may not see it as romantic, but you know what else isn't romantic? Seething resentment.

The bad news is that letting disappointed resentment build can doom a marriage. The resentment will eventually fill you up and push the love you had for your spouse out of your heart completely, and no amount of therapy can get rid of it all. The good news is that it's never too late to start communicating. If you're married and frequently find yourself angry with your spouse for what he/she is not doing, sit down today and make a fresh start. Ask your spouse what helping out around the house means, what a clean house looks like, ask what concrete things to look for to read his/her emotional state, and ask how he/she likes to be treated if emotions are running high. Then it's your turn. Approach the conversation like a detective trying to unravel a mystery, write down what your spouse says, and have your spouse write down what you say. What you're building is a blueprint of how to treat each other.

If you're single, now is a great time to make this blueprint of your own relationship expectations, and make sure it's honest. Some of you may find that what you're expecting from a mate may be a tall order, and if that's the case, regardless of what kind of treatment you think you deserve, you may find yourself single for a very long time. Be honest about your needs, but make sure you are focusing on your needs and not your wants. It's the difference between "if I'm quiet, I need someone to ask me if I want to talk about anything" and "if I'm quiet, my spouse should take me out to dinner and cheer me up with my favorite type of present".

You are always going to be the expert of your own expectations and desires, and it's up to you to share some of that expertise with the person you are in love with. People who care about you will generally treat you how you want to be treated--you just have to let them know what that looks like. No one's a mind reader.