Relationship Connection: If I lower expectations in my marriage, is there hope that things can still improve?

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Question

I am in a difficult marriage. My husband struggles with different kinds of addictions and is emotionally detached from me. It used to be pornography, but he stopped that. Now can’t stay off of his phone and obsesses about his hobbies. I have tried countless ways to express my desire to have him tune in to our marriage and be an equal contributing partner.

To cut down on my own pain and resentment, I have stopped having any expectations for him. I am grateful for anything positive he does, but I don’t expect him to do anything in our relationship anymore.

I’m struggling with understanding the difference between hope and expectation. By letting go of expectations, do I have any hope that my marriage might improve, or am I just accepting the fact that my marriage will always be a struggle? Can you still have hope for relationships to improve if you no longer have expectations?

Answer

You’re clearly worn out from trying to get your husband to engage in a healthy relationship with you. It’s understandable that you are feeling unsure if it’s realistic to have any expectations since he’s been so unresponsive. Please know that having expectations in marriage is healthy. In fact, as long as you stay married to someone, you’ll continue to have expectations. Let’s break this down so you can decide what’s the best way to proceed.

A committed relationship without any expectations isn’t much of a committed relationship. In marriage, if we’re going to give ourselves completely to another person, we need to know what we can expect. Likewise, in a business partnership, if we’re going to invest our time and money in building something, we need to know exactly what we can expect from our other partners.

Healthy committed relationships are built over time as two people trust each other to follow through on clear expectations, which then builds deeper trust, then leads to a long-term commitment to that relationship. If you remove the expectations, then you can’t know what to hope for in that relationship. As you can see, expectations and hope are inextricably connected to one another in all intimate and committed relationships.

Even though expectations are an essential part of marriage, this doesn’t mean that we can’t adjust them. Every married couple eventually discovers that expectations in marriage need to evolve as each spouse learns more about themselves and the other. Even though there are some basic expectations common to marriage (i.e., fidelity, trust, etc.), other expectations likely fall under the category of “preferences.”

In my view, expectations are more central to the security of the relationship. They make up the framework of knowing what you can count on in the relationship. Preferences are more fluid and don’t make or break the stability of the relationship. It’s been my observation that if someone has a lot of energy around a personal preference, it’s likely tied to a deeper relationship expectation that needs to be explored and understood.

Your desire to have your husband tune in and connect in his marriage is more than a personal preference. You need to know how you can cope with the consistent message he’s sending that you don’t matter to him. You have made your expectations clear to your husband and he’s not responding. Since it’s impossible to eliminate expectations in marriage, let’s talk about how to address them in a healthy way.

First, you have to decide if his behavior is a deal-breaker. Now, this is a serious consideration and something that needs time and support. If it’s a destructive pattern that is diminishing you as a person, then it might be time to consider more drastic measures. If his behavior meets this standard, then it’s likely that your expectation is one of those foundational pillars of marriage and needs to be honored.

If you determine this isn’t a deal-breaker behavior, then it’s important for you to get clarity on what you can live with and adjust accordingly. You may decide to stay in the relationship and continue to express your expectation that he confront all of his addictive behaviors and re-engage with you and his family. Having a third party present (such as a therapist or pastor) can help create a secure place to share the impact his choices are having on you and the relationship.

Of course, you can always adjust your expectations for your husband’s behavior as well as for your own. As you adjust your expectations, please don’t secretly hope that his behavior will change. This would mean that you really haven’t adjusted your expectations. This could border on manipulation as you hope he picks up on your lack of interest and responds favorably.

Also, if you’re adjusting your expectations, it doesn’t mean you need to stay silent or indifferent. You may expand your tolerance for certain aspects of his behavior but refuse to be silent about other aspects. As you adjust your expectations, notice where you feel resentment surfacing. This will help you identify where the line is that you need to hold. And remember, as Brene Brown says, “clear is kind,” so make sure you always speak directly about your expectations.

As you probably know, one of the hardest things about living with someone in recovery from addictions is the ongoing battle to eliminate patterns of avoidance and numbing. If he’s still working a recovery program, it’s likely these patterns will improve. If he’s not working an active recovery process, then this is important for you to consider as you examine your expectations.

Even though your husband isn’t giving you much hope right now, you still need to feel hopeful about the future. Know that you can still grow, learn and connect with others regardless of what happens in your relationship. You are not your relationship, even though it is a significant part of your life.

If you choose to stay in this relationship with him as it is, you’ll find yourself grieving the marriage you hoped you would experience. It’s healthy to give yourself permission to name and grieve what is important to you. You may not talk about these expectations as much (or at all) with your husband, but you’ll still recall what you’re missing from time to time. Loss and grief are part of life and can help us clarify what matters to us.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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