Do we expect too much of marriage?

By Caitlin Kelly

From The Economist:

Eli Finkel at Northwestern University in Chicago.. told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week that most married Americans expect their spouses to develop profound insights into the essential qualities of their other half, fulfilling their needs for esteem and self-actualisation. A spouse, these days, can be expected to be a confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist. This, he concludes, makes being happily married harder than it was in the past.

I was struck, and touched, by how many of you “liked” my recent post about my 14 years (so far) of marriage with Jose.

ringsOur rings and wedding certificate

One commenter noted that I believe in work, that a happy marriage doesn’t just happen spontaneously. Maybe it does for some people.

In our case, our marriage is hard-won. We were both married before, very unhappily. We came to our relationship, as many of us do later in life, scarred, wary and battle-hardened, by life, by work, by disappointing relationships along the way.

It wasn’t a great start and we’ve benefited from several smart, insightful counselors along the way.

So, what do you think of this list? It does strike me as exhaustive, and possibly exhausting to fulfill.

— confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist.

I don’t expect him to parent children (we have none). I do expect him to earn a living, but he is not the only breadwinner; we rely on my income as well. I don’t really look to him as an activity partner, much as I’d like to. I love going to movies. He hates it. I love theater and dance and museums. He’ll join me occasionally but he’s happier reading or relaxing at home after another hectic workweek. We’ve helped each other confront some of our issues, but I also have a therapist and her role is clear.

I’ve also learned the hard way that it takes two people to make a marriage.


Actually, not really. You can hit every traditional milestone: a fancy wedding and sexy honeymoon and a big house and tons of kids — and still have a crappy, lonely, cringe-making life, wondering why on earth you took vows with this creep.

If both people aren’t in the same set of traces, pulling hard in the same general direction most days, I think your marriage is less likely to last.

I don’t actually feel like an oxen tilling the fields. But we all need backup!

Knowing that each of us is as fully committed to life’s dreary scutwork — laundry, groceries, scrubbing the toilet, getting the damn car inspected, collecting all our tax paperwork — as we are to one another’s deeper happiness helps a lot. Jose is not, thank God, lazy or messy or disorganized. (OK, I can be the last two, rarely the first.) He puts gas in the car. I wash the floors.

Sexy? Maybe not for some people. Someone taking responsibility is deeply attractive to me.

Shared values matter enormously.

One of the many self-help books I read while dating, (yes, I admit it!), offered what I thought was an interesting way to decide if someone new might prove to be a good fit romantically: PEPSI — whether we had a decent match in the following categories: Professional, Emotional, Physical, Spiritual and Intellectual.

From our first date, I knew we matched well on four of the five.

Offering your sweetie your absolutely undivided attention, preferably for an hour a day, (yes, it’s not easy; that’s the point!), is also huge. In an era of CPA — continuous partial attention — this is one of the greatest gifts we can still, and must, give one another.

But I think the single most important element of a marriage you want to last for decades is, paradoxically, remembering that your partner or spouse is a separate human being.

We each carry our own fears, hopes, dreams, goals and unresolved wounds. We each arrive at the altar — whether we marry at 20, 40 or 60 (possibly all three!) — as someone with a past. We all bring ghosts, angels and demons, some of which we have yet to even notice, acknowledge, tame or banish.

(Which is where good therapy can also strengthen your marriage, whether you go alone or together.)

I keep a photo of Jose, as a small baby in his onesie, his mother beaming beside him, nearby in a lovely frame. I treasure everything about this image: her joy, his delight, her optimism, their love.


Gregorita is so thoroughly delighted with him, even though he’s a surprise baby and she’s 50 and her husband is not in good health and they have little money.

She cherished him, but she died decades ago.

Now it’s my turn.

Here’s a post from Psychology Today, by a man happily married for 43 years, with his five tips for a satisfying marriage.

What do you expect from your husband, wife or partner?

Is it too much — or not enough?

32 thoughts on “Do we expect too much of marriage?

      1. My pleasure! I’m always on the lookout for what good relationships are like just so I can cleanse my mind from any damage the media has done to my subconscious, ha.

        I’m sure many others like me will appreciate this 🙂

        Congratulations to you for being blessed in this department. 😉


  1. I appreciate this post and the questions you’re asking in it because my fiance and I are busy wedding planning now. We’ve been together for 7 years already, so a lot of our family thought “about time!”

    I think we were smart to wait. We got to know each other through many ups and downs. Now we know we’re in this together.

    1. Congrats! Very exciting time for you both.

      I think it’s great that you’ve had so much time to get to know one another so well. The day we got married I had no nerves…because I knew him. It makes a difference!

  2. Ooher. I think no two marriages are alike, so defining parameters for happiness or expectation seems impossible to me. We have a fiery but stable marriage, we were friends for more than a decade before the fall, we come from very different lifestyles, but we share the same values. We talk all the time, as though we’re the only people around. It works. But I know many couples whose marriages are not like ours, and theirs work, too.

  3. The essential things are to consider each other to be precious (not faultless, just precious, the way a baby is precious), existentially important, someone whose story you care about and who cares about yours, and when you look at them, to sometimes see them as they were as a baby, as a child, as a teen, as a young adult, and as they are now, all at the same time.

  4. Good post! I once thought that two people could love each other no matter how different they were, but it turns out I was wrong. And I’m glad I was, because I have found someone who is so much like me, and it’s amazing! I can actually be myself around him (the actual me, not just the I-want-to-please-my-man me) and I love it.

  5. It does seem like we ask so much of a marriage. I think the key is realizing that sometimes we’ll get some of them right, but sometimes we don’t–we all just need to keep trying, keep appreciating our partner and working through the bad with the good. My parents had a successful marriage until my father died unexpectedly a few years ago–over 40 years. And I have to say, my mom was no picnic—a yeller! critical. hot-headed. I asked him quite a few times how he put up with her over the years and his answer was always “shared values”. We went into this together, knowing we would stay together, and we work through it. I guess that old saying about never really knowing what other couples go through holds true. We as kids saw one side, but most likely didn’t see that side that drew them together in the first place and kept them there. My husband and me? I was married at 32, he is older and divorced,.and we lived together first I think for us, we never got caught up in the unrealistic view of marriage. Our wedding was amazing but we knew life didn’t automatically just become perfect once you say “i do”. Thanks for the post, nice to think about today, as we wonder if we are keeping our end of the bargain 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing this…

      I think every marriage is very secret in some ways…we only “know” so much about other people and what makes them attractive to someone else, let alone a working partnership. I know my father (night and day different from Jose in some ways) just doesn’t get it. But I do. That’s all that matters,

  6. I appreciate this post. I often think I expect too much from my husband but also I see that he can and should show me his best as I have done so for him over the years (yes! I’m perfect! Of course!) lol I’ve consciously made an effort to be more appreciative and accepting of what he does for me and our family. And when I do, we are much happier and in sync. I STILL think he could do a bit more in the overall scheme of things like cleaning a toilet or tending to the kids but…oh well…

    1. My sense of married life with children is that it is MUCH different (how could it not be?) than those of us with only a spouse to attend to. I doubt I’d enjoy my marriage nearly as much if I were more tired, more demanded of and trying to reconcile all those needs at once. As you know, many many studies have shown that mothers do a LOT more work, paid and/or unpaid family labor, than men do. It causes a lot of stress and tension.

      I know kids can bring great joy, but I am happy being able to focus my care on one person. And I know he appreciates it, as I do.

      1. Yes. It is very true. I was always kind of lost though before I had kids, anyways. No direction, unsure of what I wanted to do in life. Somewhat clingy and just a follower. Which my husband, I see now, enjoyed tremendously. When I had my first two kids, it lit a fire in me to be more focused and do well for the family. Even in that, though, I failed, and he did/was the same. Everything was about the kids and house. We forgot each other and grew apart over a period of 5 years or so and didn’t even realize it. Now that time has passed and we have our third child, making the effort to focus on our relationship together is an exercise we are both more committed to. I appreciate him more as the months go on and I feel that he appreciates me, too. Thank you for responding. It has prompted me to be more aware and continue the work!

      2. I suspect that happens to many families, amid the chaos and challenges of raising several small children. I think parenthood gives many people a strong sense of identity, but they can also (as you have seen) be subsumed by it and get lost inside that.

        I also think that Americans have a very tough time parenting with so little (none) government help — low-cost daycare or paid maternity leave — that many other nations offer to parents to ease their burden.

        Best of luck as you move forward!

      3. Yes! I agree. Hopefully things will change in that. There’s a lot more talk about it now. There never was 15 years ago. You got 6 weeks half pay maternity leave and stress. There are no resources if you make a decent wage and there are no alternatives other than sucking up the daycare costs and the daily grind of it all. I’m fortunate that I can stay at home full time now, and that has been a blessing. Although my husband would rather me bring in an income, I think he values the time I’m giving our baby even more so. And, to be here for our teens when they come home, let them participate in school and sports activities, to be present in all this, is so great. Best of luck to you as well in maintaining such a strong marriage.

  7. I’m sure it’s different for every couple. Seems to me, though, that the two keys are mutual respect and shared values. “Respect” encompasses most of how we treat each other. There’s no room for contemptuous comments, or for being careless about the other’s feelings or belongings. The other person’s wishes are honored in the absence of a good reason not to (and just being in a pissy mood is not a good enough reason to deny what they really think is important.) And when the two truly want different things, the shared values step in to guide a decision.

    My husband is 14 years older than I. He’d been through a bad marriage by the time we met. I was just 19. But we’ve had a happy marriage and easier, I think, than most people’s, because we try to always treat each other well, and ultimately we want the same things. AND we love each other more deeply than I could ever have imagined.

    Now we watch our son and his fiancee move toward marriage and see the same elements. They met in junior high, started dating as seniors in high school, became engaged more than 3 years ago, and will marry in 2015, almost 9 years after their first date. And it all works so far because of mutual respect and shared values and goals. It’s hard to imagine that with the walk they’ve already taken, they won’t be together for a lifetime.

    1. Thanks for sharing…

      I agree that mutual values are essential. Respect is also. They sound amorphous and they don’t make for reality TV (as opposed to endless glorification of $$$$ weddings and dresses) but you know their importance.

  8. I’m not sure being true to one’s self should be rated very high in a marriage. If you are not willing to change and grow with your partner, the outcome will not be good. “More , Me, Now” is a good recipe for failure. My father said you should both be willing to give 60%. If you do it’s that overlap where the growth come in. Growing together is what it’s all about.

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