Even healthy marriages suffer from internal grumbling and complaining by both spouses. Addressing unmet expectations in marriage can be tricky, but if you learn to do it well, you’ll end up with a more vibrant and growing relationship rather than a struggling one. Here are some examples I have read about on Facebook mommy groups:
Ugh, would it kill her to make an actual meal once in a while?
Why won’t he help put the kids to bed? I’m drowning over here!
Why am I the only one to ever pick up a toy around here?
I wish she were a little gentler with our kids; I’m sick of all the yelling.
Is it really necessary to play 2 hours of video games a day?
Geez, I miss the woman who used to dress up and put on makeup once a while…
It is NORMAL to have all these thoughts. It doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed. Healthy marriages have spouses who have both learned how to fight fair and confront grievances gracefully. Here is what I’ve learned over 10 years of marriage.
Disclaimers and Disclosure
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission from your clicks. Check out my full disclosure here.
This post assumes that both parties are totally committed to the marriage, and just struggle to avoid big fights when criticism is happening.
Also, I’m not a Marriage and Family Therapist and I have no formal qualifications to write this post, hah! Just pretend you’re getting advice from a friend who happens to have a healthy marriage with normal ups and downs.
Before addressing an unmet expectation in marriage, think through your motivation and mindset.
It’s always important to remember the purpose of any conflict in marriage – to return to peace and create a healthier marriage where each partner is growing and feeling loved and respected.
If you’re angry, take a beat and ask for space if necessary.
You won’t be able to achieve the goal above if you’re angry when it’s time to talk. If your mental state is not right, don’t initiate the conversation about the unmet expectation. For some reason, couples love to pick fights when they’re already wound up, and it’s not going to be accomplish anything.
If you’re calm and seeking peace, proceed thoughtfully.
After you’ve had a chance to settle down, and your mind is clear, you can reach out to your partner about making space for a heart-to-heart conversation. If you anticipate it being a long or difficult discussion, you’ll want to follow some of the steps outlined below.
If you have never stated the expectation before, just casually mention your frustration and listen for his or her response.
Know yourself and your spouse really well.
Marriage is meant to be a relationship where you help each other grow. Notice I didn’t say anything about this being a one-way street! If you want to address unmet expectations and anticipate a bit of conflict, it’s best to know both yourself and your spouse really well. Here are some tools for doing that.
The Enneagram can help develop an awareness of your own moral and spiritual weaknesses (and shine light on your spouse’s challenges, too).
I found the Enneagram so helpful to my marriage recently that I wrote an entire blog post about it. There are also tons of life coach vloggers out there who can give you an overview (and then a deeper dive) into exploring the Enneagram. The Enneagram is an ancient study that helps people discover their motivations, spiritual strengths and weaknesses, and more. Give it a shot.
The 5 Love Languages is a quick, practical read for loving each other better.
This book is a very simple way of learning how spouses can love each other better instead of constantly speaking love in a different language. It claims there are five different love languages. Frequently, couples don’t experience love in their marriage because each are speaking in their own love language rather than becoming fluent in their partner’s. By speaking each other’s language, you can strengthen the relationship. Here’s the book that started the whole Love Languages revolution, and here’s a Youtuber explaining it in better detail than I did here.
Don’t attack your spouse for an expectation that’s never been calmly stated in a lighthearted moment.
You don’t need to have a long, drawn out conversation full of tears and drama for an unmet expectation that’s never even been calmly requested. If you’ve never even uttered the request in the past, it’s not fair to attack your partner for not meeting the expectation.
An example might be blowing up at them for not doing the pile of dishes in the kitchen when you’re occupied with kids. If your spouse never once saw his or her own father pitching in around the house, or if they’re kinda slobby by nature, it might not even occur to him that you need help or feel overwhelmed by the amount of “chaos” around you. Some people simply aren’t bothered by mess.
If the dishes are driving you nuts and you feel like you can’t get to everything that needs to be done in the evening, just holler across the house, “Hey! Can you get the dishes done right quick?! I’m struggling to get the kids in bed and I’m running out of steam!”
If that doesn’t work, then you might be justified in having a harder conversation at the right time.
Brace yourself for possible short-term tension or isolation in the aftermath, and decide to let it be.
Criticism is painful, and it’s almost worse when you know it’s true. Even when a critique is delivered with love and kindness, it’s just hard to admit to yourself that you’re falling short of pleasing your spouse. We want to believe our spouse isn’t capable of disliking us at all, which is of course, unrealistic for any marriage.
No matter how well the conversation goes, it’s normal for there to be a period afterward of stewing, silence, and even a bit of aloofness. This can feel like punishment or like something has gone drastically wrong.
That’s not necessarily true. Some people just need time to process the criticism, and not everyone processes hard conversations by reaching out; sometimes people just need to withdraw a bit. Try not to panic or assume your marriage is in danger. Respond with love and an eagerness to move forward when the partner is ready.
Choose your moment wisely when addressing an unmet expectation in marriage.
If your partner is normally exhausted at the end of a long work week, don’t plan on having a conversation on a Friday evening. Friday evenings, in that case, are a great time to wind down.
Try and choose a time in which both of you are reasonably able to devote time and energy to the conversation.
People say to never go to bed angry, but I actually disagree. I think a difficult conversation before bedtime can be helpful, because you don’t carry the weight of the conversation all day. You can sleep it off, and wake up refreshed and ready to think more about the issue when the tension or hostility have dissipated.
Out of fairness to your spouse, give a gentle warning or request a good time to talk.
It seems mean to me to spend the whole day planning to really let your partner have it, when they have no idea it’s coming. The purpose of your conversation is to improve the marriage, not set it on fire by attacking your spouse when they’ve had no time to prepare themselves.
If you decide you need to discuss your hurt or frustration about unmet expectations in marriage, give your partner a heads up. Here’s a make believe scenario in which you might send a text during the day:
“Hey, I keep finding myself getting really frustrated in the evening as we’re trying to get the kids to bed. Could we set aside some time this weekend to talk about it?”
Any reasonable, committed partner will agree to have a conversation. In this made-up scenario, it’s also possible they want to head off the discussion. He or she might respond, “Sure, but I know I’ve been slacking. I’m sorry. I promise, I’ll work on it.” You might then find that evening that he or she knows exactly how to make you feel better and just needed an open-hearted reminder. If that’s the case, I don’t think you should insist on further discussion.
Stay on topic and avoid conflict rabbit-holes.
Whether your partner recognizes the validity of your complaint or not, avoid following up with conversational bunny trails or rabbit holes. Sometimes, a person won’t get the response he or she wanted, and will react by jumping onto another grievance. That’s a bad idea.
- You haven’t prepared to address this topic.
- It makes it seem like you don’t actually want to come to peace; instead, you just wanna argue with your spouse for fun.
- You just wanted to be “right.”
It’s not a good look!
Be ready to humbly and peacefully accept any counter-criticism.
If you’re the subject of the criticism, it sometimes feels natural to take the heat off yourself by countering with your own heaping dose of criticism. It’s not particularly graceful, but it can be sort of justified if it’s on topic and relevant to the conversation.
For example, let’s imagine you want to discuss how your partner never does the dinner dishes, no matter how far behind you are at getting the kids to bed. You’re feeling disrespected and used, whether it’s fair to feel that way or not. Your partner counters with how you similarly never take out the trash, even if it’s overflowing.
In this case, you can get angry, or you can just peacefully and humbly accept that he or she is right. The natural thing is to get defensive and come up with an excuse for why his complaint is totally different, but no matter how valid, it’s just not helpful. Both of you have now had a chance to speak your mind about unmet expectations. Done.
Remember, the goal is not to be right. The goal is to have a stronger marriage in which both parties feel loved and respected.
Practice being concise while addressing unmet expectations in marriage.
Some people tend to ramble on and on when an issue is really important or the source of lots of emotion. The more worked up they are, the more they blather on, long after the point has been made.
Don’t say everything in the whole wide world. Just spit it out with kindness and grace and a dose of “I feel…” and then let it hang in the air. Be comfortable with the silence, because people can’t think when the other party won’t shut the heck up. Just let there be quiet and space for a response.
Try prayer before addressing your unmet expectations in marriage if you’re a person of faith; if not, consider meditation.
Some of us get really nervous about conflict. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing, or we can be afraid of making the situation worse by opening up a different can of worms.
If you’re a Christian, pray before the discussion that you’ll find the right words, and that you’ll know when to shut up. You can pray for the right frame of mind or to be more like Jesus. You can even pray that God will open your partner’s heart so he or she can hear what’s on your mind without getting angry or defensive.
If you’re not a person of faith, you can still achieve some sense of peace about the upcoming conversation by just spending some time in meditation. Being quiet and still can bring a lot of clarity to any situation.
Avoid talking about your unmet expectations outside the marriage.
It really doesn’t help to talk about your spouse negatively to other people. When girlfriends get together it can be tempting sometimes, but it’s betrayal – plain and simple.
Since we’re on the topic, don’t put your friends and family in that position. You may not really like your friend’s spouse, but don’t try and tempt them to speak negatively about him or her. It’s just not good.
Try walking and talking if you can get out of the house alone.
Someone wise said that “Love does not consist of two people gazing at one another, but at two people gazing outward in the same direction.” In this case, “gazing outward in the same direction” might simply be looking at the path or sidewalk before you.
It might seem silly, but I’ve found many a conflict settled by simply going on a walk to discuss it. Some people are very physical and think better when their bodies are moving. Also, by not looking right at each other, you take away some of the threat of conflict. You might find that your partner opens up better and communicates more clearly while walking. The same might be true for you.
If your complaint sounds insignificant, get to the root of your discontent.
Sometimes, your complaint will sound downright silly, even to your own ears. So get to the root of the problem! Then, think of several examples – including the most recent one – in which this problem was spotlighted. Notice I didn’t say 50 examples! You only need to share a few to convey the pattern that has arisen. Any more than a few feels like you’ve been creating a brain Rolodex of your spouse’s failures.
And one more thing!
I used to dread addressing unmet expectations in marriage, but I’ve gotten used to walking myself through these steps to make it a gentler, more relaxing conversation. Each time, I’m glad I said something so that we can move forward even happier than before.
How confident are you addressing unmet expectations in your relationships? Do you struggle to deal with conflict? What resources and practices have helped your marriage?