This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 01 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Months before my tenth wedding anniversary, I began to dream about our upcoming romantic getaway.1 We would eat dinners by candlelight, give each other extravagant gifts, and take long walks along the beach. When the weekend arrived, I was nearly giddy as we drove away.
That euphoria lasted about four hours. I was so eager to receive my husband’s gift that not long after we settled into the bed and breakfast, I suggested we exchange presents. He sat down, pulled a card and pen out of his bag, and began to write. My giddiness instantly morphed into anxiety.
He wasn’t unprepared: he had written a poem for me. As he began to read it, my emotions immediately tangled around themselves. I thought, “A poem? I wasn’t expecting a poem. I wanted something tangible. How could he not know that? After ten years, he still doesn’t understand me.” I tried to rally but failed. He countered with justifiable anger. Instead of joyfully kicking off our second decade, this weekend initiated a year of conflict.
The intensity of our anger unnerved us. It was as if this single event encapsulated every deficit in our marriage. Month after month, we refused to negotiate or back down. We finally turned to wise friends who helped us understand that we had been minimizing and avoiding our disappointments, which prevented us from learning the lessons they were trying to impart.
How couples respond to disappointments can make or break their marriage, particularly in midlife when they start to pile up. If we fail to address disappointments, they can morph into disillusionment, despair, or resentment. Conversely, if we understand them as invitations to become more like Christ, we can learn to love our spouse unconditionally and experience more joy in our marriages.
Disappointment describes what we feel when something that we hoped for or expected does not come to pass. We all experience disappointment differently: it might look like sadness, frustration, anger, guilt, avoidance, or shame. It can be sourced in a one-time event or ongoing behavioral patterns (as was the case for my husband and me).
Though the word itself did not appear in written documents until long after the Bible was transcribed, there are examples of what we know to be disappointment throughout Scripture. The book of Proverbs describes disappointment as “hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12).2 The woman with the discharge of blood who spent twelve years and all that she owned unsuccessfully searching for healing surely experienced multiple disappointments (Mark 5:25–34). And the apostle Paul’s reference to the believers in Corinth as “mere infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1) seems to reveal his legitimate disappointment with their disunity.
Marital disappointments can often be traced back to the expectations we brought into our covenant. While many of these expectations are good and godly (e.g., fidelity and honesty), some expectations are unrealistic, and others can become problematic when husbands and wives want different things or are inflexible about how their expectations should be met.
Coming into marriage, Christopher expected me to replicate his family’s extravagant holiday meals, wash and iron his clothes, and be on call to listen as he processed his many thoughts. I walked down the aisle carrying precise expectations for how he should express love and affirmation. I wanted perfectly curated gifts on special occasions. I wanted to regularly hear him say, “You look beautiful!” I also wanted him to intuit my emotional needs. Our expectations were not immoral, but they were self-centered and unrealistic.
Given the link between expectations and disappointment, we might assume that if we jettison the former, we’ll avoid the latter. Because expectations reference our wants and needs, we’re better off paying attention to them rather than ignoring them. Understanding where our expectations come from helps us sort this out. There are three common sources: our family of origin, the culture at large, and our historic pain.
Family of Origin. Though we are largely oblivious to this reality, while growing up, our family of origin influences everything from our political leanings to how we deal with (or avoid) conflict. Children learn by watching and copying those around them.3 They understand which emotions elicit rewards (praise and inclusion) and which ones lead to rejection or punishment. The patterns that we followed when we were growing up typically habituate or incline us in the same direction if we enjoyed and appreciated our family and our culture (cf. Prov. 22:6; 2 Tim. 1:5). Or, if we were at odds with our parents’ choices, we may reject their lifestyle and belief system (cf. Jer. 31:29–30; Ezek. 18:1–24).
Most expectations are not vague or generalized. We form specific expectations — which are rooted in our preferences and biases — through specific experiences. If your family went on vacations every summer and stayed in five-star hotels along the ocean, a Motel 6 along an interstate highway will most likely be inadequate.
Some of our family-of-origin expectations are gender specific. My dad loved cars. He faithfully and proactively rotated my tires, replaced the wiper blades, and changed the oil in my car without me ever needing to ask him. Although I never communicated this expectation to Christopher, I assumed he would eagerly do the same. He believed that I would be delighted to wash and iron his clothes, since his mom actually enjoyed doing laundry.
To make matters worse, we both moralized our perspectives and did not “value each other above ourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Christopher felt I should want to do his laundry, and I believed he should take care of our car. When we attach moral energy to our way of moving through life, it often leads to judgment, pride, and conflict. Provided that our spouse’s practices do not violate Scripture or dishonor us, we should endeavor to respect and honor differences rather than dismiss them or try to convince our spouse to be more like us. We are called to conform to the image of Christ — not each other (Rom. 8:29).
Cultural Landscape. The dominant culture (both secular and religious) where we spent our formative years also deeply affects us. To grow up in the United States is to be influenced by American ideals such as individualism and triumphalism.4 These distinctly American values can contribute to a sense of entitlement and leave us feeling surprised or disappointed when our expectations for health, wealth, and happiness are thwarted by the realities of life.
Religious affiliations add another layer of expectations. While many of the expectations rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs are inarguably good and beneficial for Christian marriage, some can land in the negative column — such as when we confuse cultural norms with biblical doctrine.5 For example, certain strains of Christianity expect wives to prioritize homeschooling and forsake any professional endeavors outside the home. Families should have the freedom to follow their convictions, but we should also refrain from mandating non-essential doctrines. In some Christian households, both parents need to work, thus eliminating homeschooling as an option. Furthermore, the concept of mothers using their gifts only within the walls of their homes is cultural, not Scriptural, as Proverbs 31 teaches.
Historic Pain. A third influencer of our expectations is connected to the painful experiences and memories that we carry. Humans are wired to detect and withdraw from things that hurt us. That’s why our hand reflexively drops a hot pan before we can articulate what’s happening. Muscle memory helps us avoid making the same mistake. Likewise, memories of our emotional and relational hurts try to steer us clear of more pain by shaping our expectations for those around us. Christopher traces his expectations for me to endlessly listen back to a dysfunctional household dynamic. His family’s style of talking over each other while exchanging verbal jabs resulted in lots of laughs — and profound loneliness. Being heard is one of the ways that we feel known and loved.6 Christopher did not feel known or understood by his family. He entered marriage, as nearly all of us do, seeking healing from his past wounds and longing to be fully accepted. These desires resulted in deeply embedded expectations. To uncover his legitimate needs, we had to pay attention to and then dissect his disappointments.
The Hidden Promise of Disappointment
Disappointments can help us become more mature, more content in our marriage, and more accepting of our spouse if we discern what they are trying to teach us. Otherwise, we may short-circuit the transformation that they intend to impart. (Worth noting: sometimes disappointments result from harmful choices or moral failures. In such cases, we need to hold our spouse accountable even as we reckon with our pain and loss.)
Disappointments expose the limits of our power. Our expectations will not enable our spouse to become a different version of themselves. I cannot make Christopher notice how I look or force complimentary words out of his mouth. Likewise, he cannot make me an extrovert. Once we realize and accept the limitations of our power, it should help us to refocus our energies on what we can change.
The reality is that Christians are not powerless (Phil 4:13; Eph. 6:10). We have the agency to change our own thoughts and behaviors as we walk by the Spirit in the context of the Body of Christ. Focusing on how the other person needs to change will most likely result in more disappointment and less hope about our future.
An essential component of working through disappointment is discerning whether we hold unfair or unrealistic expectations for our spouse and our marriage. If you’re uncertain about this, pay attention to places where you overreact, have routine conflict, judge each other, or carry negative expectations. You could also ask a variation of this question: How realistic are my expectations based on who I married? Not who I think I married, not who I hoped to marry, but who I actually married. (And if you’re married to someone who struggles with depression or other mental health issues, it’s very possible that some of the expectations you brought into marriage are in fact unrealistic and need to be adjusted.)
Recognizing the disparity between our expectations and our reality can be painful. It’s seldom easy for us to stop trying to control, grieve our losses, and learn what it means to trust God in all things (Prov. 3:5). The life-long journey toward holiness (Heb. 10:10) should help us to renew our minds (Col. 3) and love our spouse with patience, kindness, humility, hope, and all the other characteristics listed in 1 Corinthians 13.
It’s beneficial to have ongoing conversations with our spouse where we can parse our disappointments, needs, and expectations. This is one of the greatest opportunities of midlife marriage. If we continue to cling to any unrealistic expectations, we not only become entrenched and inflexible but also are in danger of becoming bitter and resentful. Conversely, as we begin to formulate healthy, realistic expectations, it frees us to fully embrace our spouse because we’re no longer judging or trying to change them.
By digging into his disappointments, Christopher was able to discern three lessons. In his words,
I’ve turned my expectations about mealtime into appreciation for Dorothy. She may not cook as much food as I think she should, but the quality is infinitely better than what I could produce. With regard to the laundry, I can turn my disappointment into personal action. Rather than expecting her to do this for me, I can do it myself. Letting go of my expectations about her listening to me has been the most difficult but I’m slowly learning to turn my disappointment into repentance. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t value my needs to be listened to above her need for the same.
In other words, relational disappointment can provide opportunities for us to give thanks, become more engaged, and repent. Ultimately, those responses should soften our hearts and increase our capacity to love. That’s good news for us and for our marriages.
Dorothy Littell Greco is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful (David c Cook, 2017)
- This article is adapted from Dorothy Littell Greco, Making Marriage Beautiful (Colorado Springs: David c Cook, 2017) and Marriage in the Middle (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).
- All Scripture quotations are from the NIV.
- Andrew N. Meltzoff, “Born to Learn: What Infants Learn from Watching Us,” in The Role of Early Experience in Infant Development, eds. N. Fox and J. G. Worhol (Skillman, NJ: Pediatric Institute Publications, 1999), http://ilabs.washington.edu/meltzoff/pdf/99Meltzoff_BornToLearn.pdf.
- Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove IL: IVP, 2015).
- For more on this, see Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).
- Adam S. McHugh, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distractions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015).