I wasn’t Expecting that!
Over the last few columns we’ve been exploring how our formation in our family of origin continues to play out throughout our marriages. There are typically three ways in which our formation can pose challenges for us and today we explore the first of these: incompatible expectations.
Growing up, Francine’s father was a retail pharmacist with her mother working full time raising the family and volunteering in the school and parish community. It was the 1970s and the shop doors closed at precisely 5:45 each day, and he walked in the door at 6:10 like clockwork.
Dinner was on the table at 6:30 and the whole family ate together almost every week night. This was just one aspect of a very ordered and predictable home and family life.
Byron’s father was a hospital doctor with long and unpredictable hours. As a child his family moved around internationally as his father pursued his specialist training. His mother also worked full-time raising the family and they were both heavily involved in marriage and family ministry.
Byron’s home was a constant comings and goings with people and meetings and his dad was often called out to the hospital or was doing ward rounds on the weekend. He made the family meal a priority but it had to be juggled with clinical commitments. The routine was one of variability as his parents built their lives around fast-paced flexibility.
You can well imagine the dramas that beset us as a young married couple trying to establish our new coupledom. When we returned from our honeymoon, Byron began a project based in another capital city. He left early Monday morning and didn’t return until late Thursday evening. This went on for the next six months.
Meanwhile, Francine returned home from the university lab around six (just like her father) and tried to adjust to the new topsy-turvy pattern of a husband with an unpredictable work and travel schedule. When we moved to New York, the pattern continued with Byron now working across two continents and Francine studying a masters’ degree – we both spent many evenings alone in our respective cities.
What Francine experienced and therefore expected about how married life should play-out was a million miles from Byron’s experience. Little wonder that these differences have been the cause of many misunderstandings, hurts and indeed arguments throughout our married life.
What worked for our respective parents does not necessarily mean it will work for us as our marriage has never previously existed – there is no manual for Byron and Francine’s marriage.
This is a classic example of ‘incompatible expectations’ and is perhaps the most obvious way of how our family of origin formation can cause us difficulty. These are the kinds of things over which we clash conspicuously as they manifest in very obvious differences in behaviour and attitudes.
Incompatible expectations are particularly common around issues of roles and responsibilities, for example, assumptions about who will take the garbage out, how we prioritise our finances, or whether the wife will leave paid work to care for children.
In our case, the family meals continue to be a prickly issue as we frequently drift back to childhood assumptions forgetting how the resultant behaviours can so easily trigger the other. This is one issue that requires active surveillance for us. On the other hand, we have navigated the garbage responsibility rather painlessly.
Other areas that frequently come up for couples are incompatibility in communication styles, reactions to conflict, division of labour in the home, spending patterns, recreational pursuits and religious practice to name a few. Not to forget the old ‘toilet seat up or down’ issue (if only they were all that easy to resolve)!
Dealing with Incompatible Expectations
All couples, without exception, will have incompatible expectations. That’s a given. The real issue is: how do we deal with them?
Mercifully, it is often not as difficult as we might think to change our behaviour once we actively choose to do it. The hardest part is naming it. Once that is done, and we understand why we have such strong feelings, and why our spouse feels so differently, it is easier to relinquish our cherished beliefs and adjust our behaviour to accommodate each other.
Importantly, what needs to change is often not the predictable ‘meeting in the middle in a 50-50 compromise’. Sometimes, if one of us is more emotionally involved and the other less so it may make more sense for that person to change, since he or she is more invested in it.
For example, one couple we worked with some years ago had an ongoing tension over locking up the home. Living in the inner city, it was her father’s routine to systematically check the house was locked up each night. The husband was raised on a farm, and no one locked up even when they went on holidays!
Every night that he failed to lock up the house, she went to bed angry and he was mystified as to what he had done wrong. When they were able to name their radically different formation experiences it was a breakthrough moment. But what to do about it?
Most people would instinctively suggest that in this case the husband should step up as it was clearly very important to the wife. While he was willing to help in securing the home out of love for her, he often forgot because it was simply not on his radar. He had good intentions as he tried to respond to her needs, but his formation and his lower anxiety about security was always working against him.
The true breakthrough came when she recognised that there was nothing inherent about being female that disqualified her from taking on the role of securing the home. Her anxiety about it was her issue. She didn’t need to forfeit her need to feel safe, she simply needed to release her assumptions about who’s responsibility it should be-it was important to her, so she just took it on as her job. Her realisation and taking ownership of her formation gave her the freedom to choose how to change.
All too often our formation plays out in the subconscious which makes it really hard for our spouse to know what’s going on. Being more conscious of the under currents affecting us will ultimately help us to live more intentionally in our marriage.
So, every time we find ourselves in a clash of expectations, we need to stop and unpack what is going on for each of us. Looking into our family of origin gives us clues as to why it is important to us and allows us to examine the assumptions we have about who should be responsible.
It can sound counter intuitive, but it’s important to maintain an open mind in seeking a solution as the obvious answer is not always the best one. Sometimes the unexpected is the solution to an incompatible expectation.