“It’s one of the things we are most afraid might happen to us. We go to great lengths to avoid it. And yet we do it all the same: We marry the wrong person,” proclaims Alain de Botton in his viral New York Times article, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
Botton claims that men and women today stumble into marriage high on romanticism. We choose a life partner by taking a wild guess and hoping for the best. And we are always wrong.
The culprit for our disappointing fate, he says, is the romanticism that governs the way we date and provides the criteria by which we judge the “rightness” or “wrongness” of our spouse after the honeymoon phase fades away. In order to be happy in marriage, he counsels, adopt a philosophy of pessimism. “We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us—and we will (without any malice) do the same to them,” prescribes Botton.
There is something true in Botton’s analysis that is resonating powerfully with many men and women—I know because I received scores of messages and emails telling me the article was a must-read. And yet I can’t help but think that Botton’s hurried solution to our gloomy fate is just as romanticized as the romantic mindset he critiques.
The truth is, few people dating in their twenties and thirties today truly believe that the person they marry will be perfect. We have seen enough broken marriages and read enough relationship blogs to know that marriage is hard—even when you marry your best friend. More and more men and women are putting off marriage, not because they don’t want it, but because they feel ill-equipped for the challenge.
If all we need to do to be satisfied in marriage is to take a more cynical view of it, then from what I can tell we are already there!
So then, why aren’t we more content in our marriages? It’s not the unrealistic romantic notions that disillusion married couples. Instead it’s the reality that our spouse may never meet even our most reasonable expectations that leaves us wondering if we made the wrong choice.
Uncovering and struggling to meet one another’s expectations is one of the most difficult tasks in married life. Most of the time we don’t even realize we expect our spouse to behave in a particular way or to be a certain kind of person—we just assume that our spouse is on the same page.
Sometimes the fix is simple. You share your expectations with your spouse, he shares his expectations with you, and you both work to be better for each other. But there are some expectations that our other half can never satisfy. Maybe it’s his inability to be the extrovert, the communicator, or the affirmer you hoped he would be. Then sets in the slow and sinking realization that this person you married will never be able to meet your very reasonable expectations—this person is never going to change.
It’s not that you expected him to be perfect, but you did expect to be able to work things out.
This may sound gloomy. But the real secret to lasting love begins in acknowledging that disappointing “he won’t ever change” moment. Botton is right when he concludes that the road to marital happiness begins with learning to “accommodate ourselves to ‘wrongness,’” and seeking to forgive our spouse for their many insufficiencies. But this is not a mere matter of putting romantic notions to rest. Our reasonable expectations should be given attention and respect in marriage. Furthermore, letting go of our expectations is not an easy thing, and adapting a new, more cynical mindset is not enough to find true happiness in marriage.
Accepting the disappointment of unmet expectations, and then moving on to truly love our spouse for who they are, requires a healthy grieving process. Allowing yourself and your spouse to grieve together for what you will never have is the first step to finding true compatibility with the person in front of you.
In their book, Fighting For Your Marriage, Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg discuss the importance of duly grieving the loss of your expectations. “One of the most painful experiences in life is coming to the realization that you may have a very reasonable expectation that you have communicated clearly to your mate, yet it’s never going to come about,” they write. But the deepest kind of acceptance of your spouse—the kind that allows you to, as Botton puts it, “adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective”—can only be achieved through healthy grieving.
“The most amazing marriages we’ve seen are ones in which the partners not only can accept their disappointments but also reach a point where they can do it together,” explains Markman and his co-authors. “In other words, they are able to join together in acknowledging the things they grieve, and doing so becomes a way of being more intimate.” The authors continue, “When a couple can say to one another ‘I know this is one of those times you wish I’d chosen a different career’ or ‘I know this schedule is not what you wanted for us,’ you are looking at a deep and tested love.” In such moments we lay to rest our hope for someone different and accept our spouse for who they are. Our attention can then be focused on building compatibility based on reality, rather than fantasy or regret.
A happy marriage cannot be won just by patient acceptance of and forgiveness for our disappointments. Once we have grieved, we must take love one step further and seek true appreciation for the “rightness” of the other person. I’ll never forget my mother telling me how my father’s heavy footfall used to frustrate her to no end. When babies were sleeping or the house was peaceful, she could never get my dad to adopt a softer tread. My mom still finds my father’s loud tramping frustrating from an objective standpoint, but now she wouldn’t want that to change. It’s part of what makes him him, and she loves everything about him, even the things she can’t change. This is perhaps a small disappointment, but it’s this kind of deep acceptance of the other that truly happy couples master.
Let’s not cast aside our expectations too hastily—even the unrealistic romanticized ones. We should allow ourselves to grieve for the person we didn’t marry, so that we can open our hearts to the person we did. This is how true compatibility is built and deeper intimacy is forged in marriage.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Wells Photography