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Expectations that Empower and Disempower Us

We all bring expectations to a relationship. Some are life-preserving:

"I expect to feel safe from violence and life-threatening conditions in our shared home."

Some are about boundaries we need to set to allow ourselves to be as vulnerable as real intimacy requires:

"I expect to be free from any condition that turned deadly or life-threatening or intimidating in past relationships or my childhood, whether that's drunkenness, second-hand smoke, untreated addiction, or even inviting clowns into the house."

But most are about how those who love us ought to behave. We pick them up from movies, from television, from loving couples, from fighting couples, from romance novels, even from sociological studies attempting to define what's "normal."

These all could be stated beginning with "If you loved me, you would _______" or "If you were the person I thought you were, you would _______." They dictate your partner's behavior and infer from any other behavior that there's something wrong with your partner or your relationship.

"If you loved me, you'd buy me flowers once in a while!"

"If you were the woman I thought you were, you'd lose this weight you put on."

The problem with this sort of expectation isn't just that these expectations are wrong (it's quite possible to love someone fiercely and well without ever buying a flower and to be of outstanding character while overweight). They are also disempowering.

They leave you with no way to improve your relationship other than criticizing and nagging, two techniques with really lousy track records for improving a marriage. You're stuck. All you can do is wait for the person you married to turn into the one you imagined.

And it doesn't happen.

You are helpless.

And you are helpless not because you married someone flawed, but because you imagined you are the expert on how your spouse should show love or character.

There are so very many ways to show both. We get caught up in one and lose sight of the big picture. I'm betting that if your wife gave you a kidney to keep you off dialysis, you might agree that who does the dishes after her family visits isn't really a valid measure of how much you are loved. If you marry a generous man and reap the benefits of all the times he's helped people when the two of you need some serious help, you'll probably realize how wrong you were to call him weak when he wouldn't ask for a raise at work.

You disempower yourself when you stick with your ill-informed expectation that if she loves you, she'll wash dishes or if he's a good man, he'll do what it takes to make more money.

But this does not mean you should have NO expectations. You need personal boundaries. You need safety. And you empower yourself if you expect love.

Expecting love dictates your behavior, and you have plenty of power to change your own behavior. But expecting love does not mean expecting love notes via WhatsApp or kisses before you get out of bed each more. It means expecting love in all the forms your spouse offers it.

It means actively watching for signs that you're loved and savoring them. It means asking for help when you'd like some, knowing that your spouse will be able to give some of them and not others. It means asking as if you understand this and would welcome help finding help every bit as you would welcome help. It means asking for quality time together or gifts or kind words or whatever you need, knowing not everyone show love in any one of these ways. It means paying attention to what your spouse asks for and recognizing that when he or she offers this to you, it's a show of love, even if you grew up thinking "words are a dime a dozen, only actions matter" or "gifts just create obligations and awkward situations" or "it's goofing off, not taking care of a loved one, when you take time away from work to talk or play a board game or go for a walk together."

It means noticing your mate's character and not expecting something other than the amazing strengths that drew you to him or her. It means expecting a creative person to bring more creativity to your life, not great teamwork. It means expecting a very spiritual person to add more moments of elevation to your life, not exceptional perseverance on mundane tasks. You might get both, of course, but pay attention to where your spouse's strengths are, because even a persevering, highly spiritual person might be less open-minded or less interested in learning new things or less modest than you are. And that's just as it's supposed to be. Expect good character but not some imaginary character.

These empowering expectations shape how you interact with your spouse, where you look for things to fill your heart with admiration and gratitude.

They also tell you when it's time to protect yourself instead of the relationship. You'll actually know if you're being treated with love, and because of this, you'll also know when you're not. You won't need to wonder if your spouse working late means it's over or that her career's about to take off, because you'll have a multi-dimensional measure of love. If it's all gone AND she's working late, you're in trouble, and it's time to take some action to preserve your relationship or protect your interests.

What you expect from your marriage is your choice. But I hope you'll choose expectations that empower you, that keep the action in your court, where you can do something about it.

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

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