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I Would but I Can't

I would pick up those things from the pharmacy, but I can't, because I get home after the pharmacy closes.

That was my version of the truth in the last two months of my first marriage. We needed them, at least once a week. I believed my long commute and frequent late hours meant my husband should pick them up. He didn't. I felt put-upon when I did without and had to up early and waited in the long lines on Saturday mornings. Resentment grew. Our relationship withered.

After he died and I became a single mom, I discovered other ways to solve the problem. Move the prescriptions to a pharmacy near where I ate lunch or to one that delivers. Leave early when necessary and let go of my devoted worker image. Dump the commute by promising to change employers if we did not move our field office closer to my (and my employees') homes.

What I thought was a fact turned out to be a choice. My annoyance at my husband was of my own making. I never even checked in with him to find out what he believed he was capable of. I just expected he would do it because I believed I could not.

I would clean up the dog's vomit, but I can't do it without adding more of my own.

It's one thing if your spouse volunteers to take on a task for you and feels loving and appreciated while doing it. It's quite another if your spouse feels stuck with it just because you cannot come up with a way to mask the smell or get it off the sofa without feeling the slime or looking at the bits and pieces.

Expectations, other than the one you were promised--that you will be loved, are premeditated resentments.

I would go with you to your sister's wedding (or your Aunt Jo's Fourth of July barbecue), but I can't because I am expected to work in my family's business that day.

It's awful when we fall for our own stories, because if we cannot see the choices we make, we cannot feel the pain our spouses feel when we don't choose them or what matters to them.

We expect them to understand. And they usually do, when we really have no choice. But one of the blessings of marriage is having a partner who sees right through our self-defeating beliefs. So we hurt them when we lie to ourselves.

I will fix the leaky toilet, but I can't do it this weekend.

Sometimes will is worse than would. You put your name on a chore and then postpone it week after week. You choose the appreciation you get for assuming the chore, and you dissuade your spouse from doing anything to prevent his or her resentment when it's still leaky a month later.

Resentment is a marriage killer, and it grows from unmet expectations.

Comments

I know this all too well. I got so tired of the endless list of reasons why she couldn't do a very simple task that I gave up. I wouldn't ask for anything. I would go out of my way to get something done, even if it was on her way home from work. She never volunteered to pick something up (never, you ask? Really? Yes really. Never). Any small favour was a gross inconvenience. So I gave up. Discussions turned into full blown arguments on a daily basis and I got no respect at all. I wasn't wanted as a partner, as a father or any other role I had to fill. I left. I had no choice. After seven years of trying, I was the only one going to counselling, saying sorry, admitting fault or trying in any way. Now, I've actually found that I can enjoy life without all that resentment. Resentment isn't just a marriage killer, it's a soul killer and dream killer. I had no reason to live. Now I can live. Finally!

Resentment isn't just a marriage killer, it's a soul killer and dream killer.

So true. And when you cannot let go of your resentment, leaving may be your best alternative.

Unfortunately, it doesn't lessen the number of things you need to do or stop caring about, as I learned when my husband died in the middle of all my resentment. And for my grandmother, it did not seem to lessen the resentment, either.

I am getting better at catching myself in the middle of total bullshit excuses and changing course right then or avoiding them altogether. Still, at times I will make one, then after a bout of the guilts, go back and tell Tammy I actually can do this or that. At least I don't BS and expect her to accept it any longer and I don't accept it from myself either. Intensely thought provoking as always, Patty! Thank you!

I think I was just like what you described above when talking about your first marriage. I "couldn't" do so many things because I "had" to stay late. Even though things are really rainbows and butterflies now, I feel myself welling up with tears just thinking CJ might have thought I chose work over him. But it's true. I did. Now, I don't. Great post, Patty. Thank you.

Sounds like a very positive change, CJ!

Thank, Tammy. And, as your book makes clear, the choice was never between being with him and staying late at work, because he would suffer, too, if you lost your job. You had to find a Third Alternative to choose, a new business, co-located with his, and a new schedule that starts your day together.

I love these 2 sentences:

"Expectations, other than the one you were promised--that you will be loved, are premeditated resentments."

"Resentment is a marriage killer, and it grows from unmet expectations."

My question is:

If the only reasonable expectation is that we will be loved, are there no actions that we can expect as part of that? In other words, is the promise of marriage that my partner will "feel" love for me and nothing more. All actions based on that love are entirely optional and not to be expected?

For example, if I have fallen and broken my leg, can I not expect that someone who loves me and is there with me at the time to take some loving actions? The trouble is, if I can expect my partner's love to come with some loving actions in addition to simply feeling love, then what expectations are reasonable?

Or if the answer is we cannot expect anything more than that they feel of love, then what can we do on our own for a broken leg, while also not resenting our partner who did nothing to help?

This might sound like a theoretical question, and it is, but I think it's important to try to answer it. If some level of expectation makes sense, then how do we know what is reasonable and what is not?

Just some thoughts.

Love this blog. Thank you, Patty!

Thank you, Cindy. Great question.

We can expect anything we like. In a Muslim marriage, we can even get those things written into a contract. Others would do well to discuss them, because no one can guess which ones we believe are mandatory signs of felt love.

Expect love is not an instruction on how to be a good spouse, not something you *should* do. It is an instruction on how to enjoy being married and something you can *choose* to do. If there are deal-breakers, things you cannot help but expect, whether others would find them reasonable or not, tell your spouse. Ask for what you need because you need it. This comes across very differently from scowling at your partner as if he or she is somehow defective for not knowing you need it.

Even in the broken leg incident, would we expect our beloved to take charge and do what seems best or ask what we want? Would we expect him or her to say kind words, make us laugh, go get help, hold us, be prepared to splint the leg for us, carry us to safety, or drive us around for the next six weeks while we mend? If he or she guesses wrong about what is enough, our heart may fill with resentment despite receiving several of these.

When we don't get what we expect, this triggers an automatic fault-finding activity by our brains, to assess the level of threat we face. We become laser-focused on what's wrong. We tally up everything else that's not happening.

This is what I did daily in the final two years of my first marriage, and I was miserable as a result. It wasn't until my husband suddenly dropped dead that I recognized I still needed all those things. I had gotten the equivalent of an instant divorce with full custody, all our assets, and an insurance policy payout to boot, and I still needed all those things he had failed to offer. All I had lost was his love, not my unmet expectations.

And the moment I took ownership of meeting my expectations, my needs, I could suddenly see all the ways he had shown the love I always knew he felt but thought he did not show. While tapping my foot waiting for the ones I expected but did not get, I had completely overlooked so many things, and I missed them dreadfully with him suddenly gone.

My first husband and I were actually pretty good at reading each other's minds. I just expected things he could not or would not do. The second time around, I married someone raised under totally different circumstances and expectations from mine, with absolutely no mind-reading abilities. If I did not pay my attention to the love he offers instead of the love I once thought I could reasonably expect, we would have shot each other by now. Instead, I think he's the best thing that ever happened to me.

I do believe you also need to Assume Love when you find yourself upset, so that you can check whether your spouse simply violated your expectation or instead did something no one could do with love in their heart. To my mind, anything that even a kind stranger would protect you from -- beatings, rapes, stealing money you need to survive, poking repeatedly at known vulnerabilities to manipulate you, terrorizing or imprisoning you, forcing you to do things abhorrent to you -- is a sign you are not loved or you are loved by someone you are not safe being alone with because addiction or brain damage prevents them from doing as they intend.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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