Healthy Relationships: Ideal vs. Real Expectations (Part 2 of 4)

Spouses with ideal expectations tend to want perfection. They tend to want their ducks lined up in a row and seek ways for life to go their way, as they have rules and ideas about how life should be. In addition, ideal expectations have to do with control. It is one thing to be in control of a task, for example, keeping the garage clean or to try to be in control of the service you receive from your plumber, but it is another thing to demand your spouse, the love of your life, to also stay under your control.

One challenge for spouses who have idealistic expectations is not to compare their spouse to another spouse. It can be tempting to compare your spouse to someone else. You may say something like, “I wish my husband was as attentive to our children as that husband is.” Or, “I wish my wife could learn to cook like Mary.” Comparing your spouse to someone else leads to dissatisfaction and jealousy. So let’s say Stacy and Nick are married, and Stacy says to Nick, “How come you don’t do things for me like my friend Allison’s husband Stan does for her? Allison brags about Stan at work, and all I hear is what Stan does. I’m thinking that I got short-changed, and I want our marriage to be like Allison and Stan. You need to go have a cup of coffee with Stan so you could learn how to be a better husband.”

Imagine what it is like to be like Nick. He may start to think he needs to change, Nick may feel he needs to step it up and be like Stan. Nick may start to feel like a failure due to Stacy’s critical words. Nick will feel the pressure to not be himself and try to be someone else to please Stacy, given he fears Stacy will continue to be unhappy and critical of him. His motivation to please and live up to these ideal expectations is based upon fear that he has to do this, not a desire to do this. It is almost like he feels Stacy is holding a gun to his head or watching his every move, scrutinizing how he treats her in comparison to how Stan treats Allison.

Unfortunately, far too often idealistic spouses can start to have romantic or emotional text, e-mail, or Facebook affairs with someone who appears to fit their ideal standards, as they become bored or disillusioned with their spouse and have a secret wish to be with someone ideal. They get together with their friends and vent about how their spouse has failed them or not lived up to some ideal expectation. Their friends also can join them in these complaints and may talk about their marriages and how unhappy they also are. Criticizing and complaining about your spouse to your friends or coworkers is not a good idea, as they will often validate how you feel or suggest you should pull away from your spouse, justifying your actions based upon how he or she is disappointing you. Friends may encourage ideal spouses that the grass is greener on the other side.

When one spouse has ideal expectations, the other spouse feels pressure to make them happy, to do things right, not to make mistakes or fail. When we ask our spouses not to fail us, we are asking them to fill a need inside of us in order for our world and marriage to be perfect. An idealist may have polarized views of good and bad wherein anything less than perfect is bad. People who feel this way often feel shame and put shame on others. This creates a no-win, no-solution marriage. Both spouses now are walking on eggshells feel bad and fearful of being declared a failure.

We can all experience the challenge to pursue excellence and the feelings of failure of not living up to excellence. We can be hard on ourselves, and we can’t stand within ourselves the reality that we make mistakes as we keep undoing what we have accomplished, trying and trying to get it right or perfect. This can drive a person to a high level of frustration. This is bad enough for an individual, and even if our only target is ourselves, but it affects those around us. But when we expect our spouses to be ideal and demand of them over and over again to do something right, that is when the demand for idealism becomes unhealthy for a marriage.

Consider the marriage of Tim and Lilly. Once they married, it did not take long for Tim to recognize that Lilly was a perfectionist. Although he had seen traits of this in their dating time, he was not ready for how idealistic Lilly was when then got married. Lilly was obsessed with neatness. When Tim was in the living room, he reported it was like being in a museum where all the furniture had to be in place, no dirt allowed, and in reality, the living room was not for living but only for the guests they had over for dinner. Even the television room had to be kept in perfect order, and he was not allowed to put a cup down. Everything in the house had to be in place. Tim attempted to reason with Lilly, and sometimes they had arguments regarding the need for things to be perfect and Tim feeling criticized. He even complained that their love making had to be ideal based upon what he needed to do to prepare for any sort of intimacy or closeness. Meanwhile, Lilly saw Tim’s failures as a sign that he didn’t love her.

In cases like this, a battle starts to happen between the spouses. The challenge for the spouse with high expectations is this: how do you live with yourself, and how do you live with your spouse who is not ideal?