How to Manage Expectations in Marriage & Committed Relationships

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Marriage is a partnership. I know, duh. But many of us come into this partnership with an entire script for a good marriage written out entirely in our own heads, and then we become frustrated when our partner doesn’t magically know their lines. 

It’s natural and necessary to have expectations in marriage, particularly ones that align with your value system, but if you can’t openly communicate your expectations as a newlywed or be flexible enough to accommodate your partner’s expectations, too, then issues will crop up sooner rather than later.

So let’s just nip all that in the bud, shall we? These are a few ways to manage your expectations in marriage, including how to effectively communicate what you want to your partner and how to check in with yourself to be sure you’re leaving room for your partner’s wants and needs, too.

To have a good partner, you’ve got to be a good partner. Whether you’re navigating the first year or the 30th year of marriage, there’s always room to grow!

Expectations in Marriage: What’s Normal?

To begin, everyone comes into life experiences with their own opinions and expectations for how things should go, and marriage is certainly no different! Most couples have these conversations before they even become engaged, and certainly before they actually walk down the aisle, but sometimes we are so caught up in those heady “in love” types of feelings that we might not really know how we will react once we are married.

For example, maybe you really and truly don’t mind your partner heading off to play pickleball with his friends every weekend, but then baby comes along and you might start to feel like every weekend is a bit too much. This scenario is completely normal, and navigating major life changes in marriage requires both people to be honest about their wants and needs, even if and when those change.

What’s not normal is expecting your partner should bend to your will and do exactly as you’d like, no matter what. This is where managing your expectations of your spouse comes into play. Even if this doesn’t come naturally to you, this is a skill that you can learn.

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How to Manage Expectations in Relationships

A couple shares a swing in a field at sunset.
Having expectations in relationships is normal, but they should be healthy for everyone.

Be Honest 

This is one of those obvious relationship expectations that everyone agrees with but many of us don’t follow! I don’t mean maliciously lying or misleading each other, but rather those “sweet” fibs we tell each other -and ourselves- like, “no, that was fine that he said that. I just overreacted because I’m having a tough day,” or “Before I said that it was okay, so I shouldn’t be upset if it doesn’t feel that way now.” 

We think we are being respectful and sparing someone’s feelings by dismissing or downplaying our own, but this can be a recipe for disaster: it’s often after we’ve pushed away our true feelings time and time again that they finally spill out in a dramatic and sometimes disrespectful way.

The best remedy for this? Making it an expectation in the relationship that you both can be trusted to handle and manage when the other brings you something hard like a change of heart or difficult feelings. Being in a committed relationship doesn’t mean that you shield each other from the hard stuff, it means you can face the hard stuff together.

Communication is key, and if this isn’t one of your strong suits in your relationship, brush up on those communication skills asap! You can always learn to be a better listener and communicator.

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Be Reasonable

When managing expectations in marriage, it’s important to recognize that your relationship won’t always be the most idealized form of committed partnership you had imagined or hoped for. Life is not a Hallmark movie. You won’t always be on the same page, and some days/weeks/months/years you might not even be sure you’re in the same book!  

Keep your expectations reasonable. Understand that conflict happens and it isn’t inherently dangerous to the relationship. As long as you two have healthy habits for managing conflict and recognize that it’s not one against the other, but rather you two against the issue, you’ll be just fine.

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Be Flexible

Flexibility in a relationship – any relationship – is basically a superpower! We can’t control each other and we can’t control most external situations, but there is one thing we should always be in control of: ourselves. 

Your partner is going to frustrate you sometimes. They might fall short of your expectations, they might make choices that take you by surprise. The best way we can handle these moments is by staying flexible and trying to respond with curiosity rather than anger. 

This doesn’t mean asking “what on earth were you thinking?” This means adopting a genuine curiosity about how your partner came to this decision, and if you don’t understand it, ask them to help you understand it. You want them to bring you in on how they arrived to that decision, and by staying flexible and curious, you’ll set the stage for them to feel safe enough to do that.

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Be Prepared

One of the beautiful things about marriage or any committed relationship is knowing that you’ve got each other’s back, but it’s a good idea to have some kind of a guideline for how you two will handle life challenges.

A great example is having children. It’s fun to daydream about having a baby with the person you’re deeply in love with and to talk about baby names and future hopes and dreams, but the real preparation lies in the less glamorous aspects of raising children, like who will stay home when kids are sick and can’t go to school? Will we need to move to a more family-friendly area?

This goes for other major life events that most of us can expect to encounter, like caring for aging parents, getting a scary health diagnosis, changing careers, etc.

Putting off these difficult conversations for when they crop up and become high stakes and loaded with time pressure doesn’t help anyone keep their cool! These don’t need to be dramatic, dreary conversations either, they can be done while chatting over coffee in the morning or while snuggling up together at night. There are even cute little question games you two can play while out to eat or walking around the park.

The critical part here is getting on the same page as your partner so that when these Big Life Moments happen, you have some kind of idea of how you can expect to handle things together.

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A man kisses his wife on the cheek as she chops vegetables in the kitchen.
Learning how to manage expectations in marriage is a win for everyone involved.

Leave Space for your Spouse

It happens to the best of us. We believe we know what’s best for ourselves, for our relationships, and yes, even for our spouses, but that means that we might sometimes find ourselves in contrast with what they believe is best. 

A marriage is two people coming together to build a shared life, and there has to be room for both of you in the relationship. Even if your partner is typically laid back and leaves it up to you to call most of the shots in the relationship, you still have to step back from time to time and ask your partner to step up. This is being a good partner and co-creator. 

Double-checking that you’re leaving room for your partner’s wants and needs is an important part of mature, healthy marriage expectations.

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Whether you’re trying to manage your marriage expectations as a newlywed or you’re just planning for your future, there’s always room for making sure you’re showing up as your best self for your partner and your relationship.

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