Carl was the nicest, most caring man when he courted Emily. But right after marriage he changed. He made demands, got angry when Emily could not meet them, never consulted her before making decisions, and repeatedly changed his mind about what he wanted. With a rigid, demanding husband, Emily soon felt disconnected. There was no relationship- only a bossy man and a hurting wife.
Sabrina is a sweet , charming, warm, desirable young woman. Caleb, her husband, had no trouble at all falling in love with her. But, hidden deep in her soul, Sabrina has a whole gang of insecurities. They make her expectations so unreasonable that she is difficult to live with. Caleb tries his best, but seldom feels he is doing it right.
Like Carl and Sabrina, inflexible people have to have everything their way. Therefore, building relationships is difficult. To them, compliance, and only compliance, is the price of peace. Or, as we say in America, “It’s my way, or the highway!”
How Inflexibility Develops
Inflexibility has a combination of contributing causes, but usually there are two that stand out: self-centeredness and fear. Here’s an example:
Janet worries because Frank seldom talks to her. She tries to discuss it with him, but he doesn’t see things the same way. He thinks he says all the necessary words, so what’s the problem? This couple needs an honest discussion of their expectations and limitations.
Let’s define some terms. Expectations are the attitudes and actions that we feel entitled to receive within a relationship. They grow out of our upbringing, but also from the ideas we have developed through reading, observing, and dreaming. Some even come from our personalities.
Limitations are the barriers within us that keep us from meeting expectations. Many are temporary. We outgrow them or overcome them in time. Some, however, do not change. For example, no matter what she does my wife will find it hard to walk as fast as I do. She doesn’t have the length of stride I do. If I expect that of her, she will always experience frustration and I will feel disappointed. So we have learned to walk together. I shorten my stride, she quickens her pace a bit, and we have many great walks.
Walking together is a metaphor for life. A wise man of old put it this way: “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3) In our shared marital life we will continually need to adjust our expectations and, as much as possible, overcome our limitations. When we do, we find the agreement that keeps us in step.
Let’s consider some of our expectations and see if we can understand them.
An expectation may be unrealistic. One stern man complains, “I have to deal with difficult people all day long. I never want to come home to a grouchy wife. I want a smile, not a snarl.” One question: Do you come home with a smile? If your wife expected the same of you, could you live up to it? Unrealistic expectations often create frustration.
We counseled a couple in Malaysia who were experiencing tremendous tension because the husband had unrealistic expectations about his wife’s cooking. He wanted every meal to be carefully planned and arranged or he just . . . could . . . not . . . be . . . happy. She tried her best to please him, but nothing she did was as good as good old Mom! Worst of all, he could not see that his expectation was unrealistic, or at least would not admit it. So no matter what else they had for dinner, they definitely had tension.
An expectation may be reasonable, but still difficult for the person you have married. There’s nothing wrong with a husband wanting to invite a few friends for dinner. That’s reasonable. But his wife may feel extremely insecure as a hostess. That makes it difficult for her to feel very happy about having guests in their home. The solution? She accepts the challenge. He shows he understands her struggles by giving her plenty of advanced notification and offering to help in whatever way he can. She accepts his offer of help and doesn’t act like a martyr. He remembers to thank her and encourage her for her help. As a result, they grow closer together. The wife knows her husband understands, and the husband knows that his wife really wants to please him. Because the dinner went well, her confidence increases. Those are great results.
An expectation may be reasonable, usually, but impossible presently. We can avoid many disappointments by explaining unusual pressures and accepting the limitations that come with them. Abigail likes Joe to reply to her messages as quickly as possible. Joe knows that and usually does it. But Joe’s company is churning through their yearly audit. He may want to reply quickly, but he can’t. Abby can help by adjusting her expectations. That shows that she understands and does not want to become another nagging problem in her husband’s life.
Suppose a wife wants a more romantic husband (flowers, cards, special dinners, etc.). But the husband does not think of himself as the romantic type. To him, romance is phony. How do they find a solution? By adjusting and stretching. The husband tries a little romance, just because it makes his wife feel so special. That’s stretching. The wife remembers that her husband loves her more than anyone on the earth, even though he finds difficulty showing it in some ways. That’s adjusting her expectations.
Several years ago a woman came to us for counseling. Her husband was a difficult man, and unwilling to change. She had many complaints, and with good reason. But after listening to her for some time, I interrupted the stream of complaints to ask this question:
“Have you ever asked God to let you see your husband as He sees him?
As the force of that question reached her heart, she became quiet and thoughtful. She realized, I think, that all of her complaining wasn’t really going to change anything. Just the opposite, for nagging never changes anyone for the better.
When we see as God sees, we can pray for God’s healing and restoring power to work deep down inside, in the places in each other that we can’t seem to reach. Then, with Gods help, we will develop more realistic expectations, overcome our limitations, and walk together in intimacy.
Think, Act, Pray
“Both my husband and I work full-time jobs. I come home before he does, picking up my children at the babysitter on the way. When my husband comes home he will not do anything to help with the children. I expect him to help! After all, he’s the father. He expects to just sit down and do nothing while I rush around preparing dinner and trying to pay attention to the children. This is really making me angry!”
1. Keeping in mind expectations and limitations, what would help this couple?
“My wife thinks that she must tell me every detail about her day. That wouldn’t be so bad except that she expects me to do the same about my day. When I won’t tell her enough, she gets moody for the rest of the evening.”
2. What expectations do this husband and wife have?
3. What limitations do you think they each might have?
4. What could they each do to adjust their expectations and stretch their limitations?
5. All of us have expectations and limitations. Can you see some places in your marriage where your expectations and limitations clash? Try talking about those today.
6. Ask God to show you your spouse through his eyes. Write down at least one fresh insight you have about your husband or wife this week. Pray positively for your spouse everyday.