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Great Expectations

January 21, 2021

If you and your partner were to create job descriptions outlining the roles you expect each other to play in your lives, how many of these boxes would you check?

  • romantic partner
  • sexual partner
  • best friend
  • reliable companion
  • unofficial counselor or therapist
  • parenting partner
  • personal cheerleader
  • problem solver
  • activity or hobby partner
  • business partner
  • soul mate
  • someone to support and inspire my personal growth

It’s been a long time since citizens of the developed world paired up for purely economic reasons: a partner to work the fields or bake the bread, tend the children or chop the firewood. Romance or love? When it existed at all, it was more by-product than primary aim. Toward the turn of the 20th century, shifting economic and social conditions saw the function of marriage broaden to include companionship, even love. Decades later, the self-actualization movement, the sexual revolution, and increasing numbers of women entering the workforce witnessed a turn toward individual growth and self-discovery as an aim of primary partnership. By the 21st century, many “have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment.”i At the same time, geographic mobility has uprooted people from extended family, lifelong friendships and community ties, often leaving a vacuum that primary partners have been expected to fill.

Might we be asking more from marriage than is reasonable to expect?

Research has found that some partnerships with great expectations deliver on their promise but only when significant amounts of time and energy are invested in it. Otherwise, the marriage “…will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.”ii But with so many couples spread thin by long work hours, endless digital distractions, and for some, the demands of parenting, partnerships with great expectations can easily come up short.

The start of a new year may be a good time for you and your partner to take stock of your relationship expectations. Are you asking too much of one another in light of available time, and energy, and a realistic appraisal of each other’s ability (skillset, personality, inclination, etc.) to deliver on your checked boxes? If your expectations are unrealistic, you will inevitably find yourself disappointed, mistakenly believing the fault resides with your partner, or your relationship, rather than with your expectations.

References & Citations

i Finkel, Eli J. “The All-or-Nothing Marriage.” New York Times, February 14, 2014.

ii Ibid.