Change Your Marriage by Changing Your Expectations

Whitney Hopler

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Gary Smalley and Ted Cunningham's book, As Long As We Both Shall Live: Experience the Marriage You've Always Wanted, (Regal Books, 2009).

What expectations do you have for your marriage?  Like many other couples, you and your spouse may expect to achieve goals ranging from financial security to regular sex.  But you also may experience the disappointment that so many other husbands and wives encounter when their expectations don't become reality.  The greater the gap between what you expect and what you actually experience in your marriage, the more tension will come between you and your spouse.

But if you learn to recognize which expectations are unreasonable or unhealthy - and how to change them - you can change your marriage for the better in the process.  Here's how:

Quiz each other.  Think about the various expectations that you and your spouse each have for your marriage: that you'll have children, attend church regularly, live in a nice house, have deep conversations, spend time with friends, enjoy good health, pursue fulfilling careers, avoid struggles with addiction (such as to pornography or alcohol), live free of the pressures of debt, pray together, cook meals for each other, present a united front to others, enjoy healthy relationships with in-laws, have sex regularly, give generously to your church, serve others together, etc.  After you've each listed your expectations, think about the gaps between what you've hoped for and what you've actually gotten in your marriage.  Identify the areas where the greatest gaps exist; these are the expectations you likely need to change the most.

Expose the roots of your responses to each other.  Discover where the expectations that each of you brought to your marriage came from, and how they affect your current attitudes and actions.  Talk about your childhoods and previous relationships, and what your parents and significant others (like past boyfriends or girlfriends) taught you about what to expect in life and how to respond to certain situations in certain ways.  Ask God to help you heal from unhealthy influences and overcome them to make better decisions now.

Balance cultural influences with biblical truth.  Regularly evaluate what media content you've been feeding your mind and emotions - and how that's influencing your expectations of marriage.  Are you watching, listening to, and reading material that aligns with biblical truth and helps your marriage, or material that's contributing to unhealthy attitudes and harming your marriage?  Don't just accept whatever messages come at you through the media.  Filter the world's messages through the Word's messages.  Focus on God's plan for your marriage.

Resolve expectations about each other's personalities.  Accept the unique person that God made your spouse to be.  Realize that personality differences between the two of you can strengthen your marriage when you figure out how to use them to complement each other.  Don't judge or criticize each other.  Instead of looking for what you think is wrong about your spouse, notice what's right.  Ask God to help you love your spouse as he or she actually is, rather than who you want your spouse to be.  Listen well to each other; be humble, gentle, kind, and patient with each other; and forgive each other for mistakes.  If your spouse is struggling to overcome some weaknesses, pray for him or her, but understand that God alone can empower your spouse to change.  You can't change your spouse, so don't waste time or energy trying.  Instead, focus on changing yourself to live as faithfully as you can to God's calling for you.

Work on your unmet expectations one at a time.  Answer three questions about each unmet expectation you have: "Do I need to change or adjust this expectation?", "Is my expectation fear and reasonable?", and "If I express my expectation, will my spouse find it to be reasonable?".  Change what you can (your own behavior) and release what you can't change (everything else) to God, praying for Him to intervene and trusting Him to help according to His will.  Work with your spouse to create new, realistic, and biblical expectations for the future.  Recharge your batteries through rest, relaxation, and prayer on a regular basis.  Choose to enjoy life even when some of your expectations go unmet.  And remember that your relationship with God through Christ should always be your main focus.  You can expect the best in any situation when God is your source of fulfillment.

Love each other extravagantly.  Seek God's love daily so it can flow through your life into your spouse's life.  Ask God to empower you to lavish your spouse with His love, in ways such as doing chores that need to be done and speaking encouraging words.  Regularly thank God for what He has done for you, and let that habit of expressing gratitude motivate you to express appreciation to your spouse for his or her good qualities and loving words and actions toward you.

Remain committed.  Remember that God's purpose for your marriage is to teach both you and your spouse how to love more deeply and to grow to become more like Jesus.  In order to fulfill that purpose, you must remain committed to the relationship, even when it becomes difficult.  So, every day, seek to learn something new about one another and keep your marriage growing.  Be willing to help and forgive each other.  Praise and encourage each other often with your words.  Stop blaming your spouse for problems in your marriage; take responsibility for your own mistakes and weaknesses, and work on changing your own attitudes and actions.  Deal with unresolved hurts.  Consider joining a marriage support group or getting Christian counseling.  Trust God to restore your marriage to what He intends it to be.

Keep investing in your marriage.  Every day, work to keep your marriage healthy.  Aim to be a constant source of hope and encouragement to each other.  Pray for each other.  Whenever you encounter an issue or situation that you wish would change in your marriage, be willing to change yourself rather than demanding that your spouse change.  Ask God to empower you to make changes in your own life to help solve problems.  Rely on God's love and wisdom to guide you each day.

January 19, 2010

Adapted from As Long As We Both Shall Live: Experience the Marriage You've Always Wanted, copyright 2009 by Gary Smalley and Ted Cunningham.  Published by Regal Books, a division of Gospel Light, Ventura, Ca.,

Gary Smalley is president and founder of the Smalley Relationship Center, which presents conferences nationwide and provides resources for families and churches. Combined, his books have sold more than 6 million copies. Gary has been a guest on numerous national TV shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live and NBC's Today. He is the coauthor, with Ted Cunningham, of The Language of Sex and From Anger to Intimacy.

Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Community Church in Branson, Missouri. Ted is a speaker with the Smalley Relationship Center and coauthor of The Language of Sex and From Anger to Intimacy with Gary Smalley. He is a graduate of Liberty University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Amy, have two wonderful children, Corynn and Carson.