Are Expectations in Marriage Wrong? 3 Things You Should Expect from Your Spouse

by | Nov 10, 2020 | Marriage | 17 comments

Are Expectations in Marriage Wrong?

Is it wrong to have expectations in marriage?

We’ve been talking about emotional maturity this month, and yesterday, as I was writing about how to have a conversation when a spouse is stonewalling, it reminded me of a post I wrote a while back about how it’s okay to expect that your feelings should matter to your spouse. That wasn’t being selifsh.

I’d like to run that again today, because it’s really important. So often we’re told that to expect anything from our spouse is a sin, but I’m afraid that’s just enabling emotional immaturity.

So today I’m going to climb up on my soapbox for this post and just give a little bit of a rant. I hope you’ll excuse me.

I see a problem with the way that a lot of Christian teaching addresses emotional needs in marriage, and it’s this:

You can’t expect your spouse to meet your emotional needs. Only God can. If you’re expecting your spouse to meet your needs, you’re putting your spouse in God’s place.

And there’s a corollary to this:

The only way to be happy in marriage is not to have expectations on your spouse.

So having expectations in marriage is thus seen as sinful.

If your spouse is treating you badly and you’re sad, then the problem is not with your spouse for treating you badly. The problem is with you for expecting your spouse to be kind, since the only person we can change is ourselves.

Now, there is an element of truth here. I do believe that the only person you can change is yourself, and so we need to be focused on changing our own behaviour to better the marriage. The contention that I would have is that the change that is required is not that we let go of our expectations; it’s that we learn to handle them appropriately and we learn to express what we need better.

Having trouble with this? Here are three posts that can help!

Why does Christian teaching often focus on how expectations are wrong?

I think that we’re so scared of couples getting divorced that when a couple has a problem that is difficult to solve, the better course of action seems to be to deny the problem is real. If solving the problem involves one spouse changing their behaviour, and that spouse truly doesn’t seem interested, then we’re stuck. So the only solution is to take the miserable spouse and tell them they’re wrong for being miserable.

Ironically I think that philosophy actually harms marriages far more than it helps. When people are miserable because of how they are being treated, you can certainly tell them, “You’re wrong for wanting to be treated well.” And they may push down their misery for a time. They may be able to throw themselves into The Word and grow closer to Jesus (which is definitely a good thing!). They may be able to find other outlets for their needs, for a time.

But ultimately when we are living a lie, that lie catches up with us, even if we’re growing closer to God at the same time (and I would say that growing closer to God often makes that lie harder to live with). And I have personally witnessed several friends leave marriages after decades of pushing their own needs below the surface, and finally not being able to take it anymore.

Expectations in marriage are not sinful.

I have read so many variations of “our marriage was only happy when I let go of my expectations.” And some of that may very well be true, because many of us have unreasonable expectations of what daily life will look like regarding how we split the chores, how much we have sex, how often we talk, what we do for hobbies, etc.

Expecting that your spouse will meet your needs in a specific way, or do specific things, is often counterproductive. But it doesn’t follow that ALL expectations are therefore bad. Here, for instance, are three expectations you should have of your spouse:

1. It is reasonable to expect that your spouse will fulfill their marriage vows.

When you married, you vowed certain things. And a vow is serious! It is reasonable to expect that your spouse will:

  • Forsake all others (including pornographic images of others)
  • Share your worldly wealth
  • Stay with you in sickness and in health
  • Love and cherish you
  • Remain committed until death

2. It is reasonable to expect marriage to meet some of your emotional needs.

Now, let’s break down what “love and cherish” mean. No, obviously marriage can’t meet all your needs. First and foremost, our peace, security, and sense of self have to be rooted and grounded in Jesus.

But remember that it was God Himself who said, “It’s not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) It was God who created marriage because we do need each other’s help! Thus, it’s okay to expect that when you get married, you will meet some of your spouse’s needs and they will meet some of yours. Why else would people marry?

And we do have responsibilities towards those around us. The concept of boundaries even teaches us this. When we talk about boundaries, we often focus on the “negative” aspect–how to say no to things that aren’t your responsibility. But there’s another aspect to boundaries. If you think of boundaries like a fence, not only do they keep bad things out; they also keep good things in. They show us what’s supposed to be inside our fence. And some things we are responsible for–including loving and cherishing our spouse.

Do you have a hard time asking for what you want?

You can change the dynamic in your marriage and make talking about your own needs easier!
If your marriage is in a communication rut, it’s time for some change.

3. If I were to break this down even further, I would say this: It is reasonable to expect that your spouse will care about your well-being.

To love and cherish someone means that, at heart, they care about what happens to you. Therefore, if something is seriously bothering you, then it should seriously bother your spouse, too.

Sometimes we may tell our spouse that we’re really hurting, and our spouse doesn’t seem to care. I’ve talked before about I why your spouse may not understand how much something is bothering you, and how to present it in such a way that they will understand. I truly believe that for most couples having issues, your marriage would fall into one or more of these reasons. It isn’t that the spouse doesn’t care (because most people, after all, are not cruel); it is just that they don’t understand.

Nevertheless, there are some spouses who truly don’t seem to care about a spouse’s misery. How could this possibly be?

1. Their view of Christianity may be that her needs truly don’t matter

In some of the couple friends I know who have split, the husband had such a hierarchical view of marriage that he truly believed that how he saw the marriage was the only valid position. If he believed the marriage should look like X, and she didn’t like X, then she was wrong and had to get into line because he was the leader.

It wasn’t honestly that he was a bad person or that he didn’t care; he actually cared quite a bit about other people’s feelings in other aspects of his life. He just honestly believed that in order to follow God, they needed to pursue his vision for the marriage rather than hers. And if they started talking about her perspective, they would be stepping outside of God’s will.

2. They may be very immature

All human beings go through different stages of moral development. But not all human beings progress through all stages.

Some people learn to do what’s right because it benefits them and they want to follow the rules. But there is a higher stage of moral development, when we do what’s right simply because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the Christian ideal. It’s when we hand over the lordship of our life to the Holy Spirit, and we allow Him to guide us into all righteousness.

But if you’ve never really done this, and if you’re living at an immature level, only doing what benefits you, then you may honestly ignore what your spouse needs. People who come from very dysfunctional families, or families that were super authoritarian or based on fear, often do not progress through different moral stages, and aren’t able to give lordship of their lives over to God.

3. They may honestly be narcissistic

Finally, you may have a spouse who truly doesn’t care about anyone but himself or herself. I think this is often the conclusion that we jump to when we’re expressing our needs and our spouse doesn’t seem to care, but I also think it’s the least likely. Usually there is another explanation. But if you are dealing with a narcissistic individual, there is very little that you can do.

So what do you do if your spouse doesn’t care? Be honest about your needs.

Fight for your marriage! And ironically that means rocking the boat. It’s okay to insist that your needs matter. If your spouse doesn’t listen, it’s okay to demand that they see a counsellor. It’s okay to call in a mentor couple, even if your spouse resists. It’s okay to say, “You may think this isn’t important and that you don’t want to talk about it, but we are going to talk about it. This isn’t going away, because this is important to me and I matter in this marriage.”

By not backing down like you usually do, it’s going to look like you’re trying to destroy your marriage, but you’re not. The only way to make your marriage better is to not accept the status quo anymore.

Let’s stop this rhetoric that it’s wrong to have expectations in marriage.

Being married means you do have a claim on some things from your spouse. Let’s admit that. And then, if a person is living in a marriage where the spouse honestly doesn’t care, we can at least come alongside them and support them, rather than shaming them for having needs in the first place.

And, please, everybody, ask yourself this question:

Am I ignoring my spouse’s concerns? Am I repeatedly telling my spouse that he or she is wrong for having certain needs?

If you are, then you may be the one with the problem. And I urge you, please, care about your spouse!

We're told that expectations are wrong since they set us up for failure in our relationships, but is that actually true? Some expectations are important to have, and here's why.

What do you think? Were you taught that having expectations in marriage was bad? What expectations do you think are legitimate? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Laurel B

    Thank you, Sheila! I was an older Christian single when I married. Those years of singleness and working in the professional world had taught me a lot about speaking up for myself, valuing my own opinion, and developing conflict resolution skills. Naturally, I am an Enneagram 2 and a people-pleaser, so these were valuable skills for me! After I married, I was horrified when I joined a Facebook group for Christian wives and realized what terrible advice these wives were giving and receiving.
    “You just need to give up your expectations. Just pray, don’t say anything. Be careful, because men have fragile egos. Never be disrespectful. If he’s doing something you don’t like, just be more sweet and encouraging. It is wrong for you to imagine that he’s doing anything wrong on his phone (this to a wife who suspected her husband was viewing pornography.)”
    This advice made me so angry! I am terrified for these wives, many of whom are in semi-abusive situations, based on their stories. I’ve been speaking up now and then, and linking your blogs on the group. I really appreciate these blogs on emotional maturity! I am so glad that my husband and I can discuss anything without becoming angry, because we both value the other and know how to discuss an issue without attacking the other.
    Thank you!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Laurel, thank you for sending those women to the blog! I’m sure they really need it. And, yes, I think that advice is totally toxic. Of course men need affirmation and encouragement, just like women do. But that’s no reason not to speak up when something is wrong. Most evangelical advice for women has the effect of making women passive aggressive, since it’s apparently a sin to ask for what you want or express what you need, since that’s disrespectful. But the needs don’t go away, so you’re supposed to get them met in rather odd ways. It’s just crazy!

  2. Doug Hoyle

    I don’t know. Maybe we should have expectations, but based on my own experience, I know I need to be prepared to let them go without too much fuss. For me, expectations, at least short term expectations, have seldom been more than a prelude to disappointment.
    Over the last few years there has been a lot of improvement, but quite honestly, a lot of what has reduced my level of disappointment has been more about me both lowering my expectations, and aligning them more with what I have come to be likely to come to pass.
    I hate to go to sex as an example, but I think it is fitting in this case. I travel extensively for work. I might be gone for 2 or 3 weeks and then be home for a weekend. My expectations, which I believe are not unreasonable, would be that we would both go to bed early on my returns home, and spend some time enjoying physical intimacy. My desire would be that it happened that evening, but it never seems to. Usually, it happens some time on the second day, but occasionally, I will be packed and headed back out the door for another trip, and she will say something like “we will have to catch up when you get home”. It isn’t a reluctant offer. I know she is sincere. Yet, I end up spending a few days having to deal with my disappointment. There are always a thousand things that I need to catch up with when I get home, and that just isn’t something she thinks about. Even on the times she has driven up to join me, we will spend the weekend sightseeing and exploring,
    and having a really nice time, but as often as not that never makes the schedule.
    Now, to me, having sex both before and after a separation just seems like a reasonable expectation, but if I cling too tightly too it, it leads to some pretty serious disappointment. Instead, my expectation has evolved to “it will happen, but not necessarily when I might wish”
    Another time I ran into a serious expectation was when my mother was in hospice. I spent a few weeks in a motel so I could spend some time with her before she passed away. My wife managed to visit once for about 5 or 6 hours. This was right after I took a leave of absence to spend weeks to help her care for her parents halfway across the country. I sat in the hospital with her, holding both her had and her mothers, as her mother took her last breath. I drove her to CO so she could help her best friend when she lost her husband unexpectedly, and I did everything I could to support her and her friend there, to include cleaning the garage, getting his vehicles ready to sell, etc. When my mother passed away, I was alone. I had every expectation that I would have my wife at my side, and when she wasn’t, to say that I was disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe it. I spiraled pretty hard, and to be honest, I was leaning pretty heavily on others. My wife picked up on that, and asked me if I was having an affair. I was actually grateful that she noticed something was wrong. That taught me something else about expectations. Do not ever expect any empathy. It isn’t that she begrudged me any, it simply wasn’t there, or not for me anyways. After the question about the affair, we had a long talk, and she as much as told me that she can not handle my feelings. I think she has tried to do better, and I have to admit that she probably has, but she wasn’t there when I really needed her. So that is just another expectation I have modified. I know she cares about me and my feelings, but if I expect that to look a certain way, I will likely be disapointed. Instead, I look for it the way she expresses it.

  3. Kay

    It gets even worse if you are surrounded by those who espouse worm theology—that you are a worthless sinner who doesn’t deserve any good thing anyway. So yes, it is therefore wrong to expect anything of your spouse because you don’t deserve it.
    This is so toxic. You deserve to be treated well. You deserve to ask for what you need, and you deserve to have those needs met. Anyone who says otherwise is guilty of spiritual abuse.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, worm theology, as you so aptly put it, is very dangerous. We seem to forget that we are made in the image of God, and that we are precious to Him! He has a specific purpose for each one of us. He cares about us. And that means that we do matter. If we matter infinitely to God, then shouldn’t we also matter to our spouse, to the one who pledged their life with us?

  4. Brenda

    Boundaries in Marriage by Hebert Cloud and John Townsend has been a good book so far. It brought up a point about being truthful in a marriage and how that includes how we really feel about things. Otherwise we give a false impression of ourselves and our relationship to the other. I would love for you to look into that book and do a series on it!
    I also think it’s very wise to not give the benefits of being married to someone who is trying to live single and not work on the marriage relationship. I keep going back to wives being told they “must not deprive” even when the husband is unrepentantly engaging in porn and not taking any actions to change. So icky!! And why would the husband ever change if he gets everything from the marriage he wants (sex and service with a smile) without having to care for his wife emotionally and spiritually?!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      VERY TRUE, Brenda! Someone who is not engaging with the marriage does not get the benefits of being married. Now, this has to be handled very carefully, and if marriage is as bleak as that, I highly recommend seeing a licensed counselor, or at least having a wise mentor. But Boundaries in Marriage is a great book that explains all of this!

  5. KW

    My husband got the book Man of God by Charles Stanley and it has changed him in all the best ways. It’s so simple matter of fact book that says what God expects of men as leaders and husbands and fathers. He’s started taking time with each of our kids to just talk to them and get to know them again, he prays with them each night and prays with me. He’s never prayed with me before now unless I specifically asked one or two times. He’s now teaching it to his men’s Sunday school class. I think every man should read that book!!

  6. Chris

    I think that there should be basic Christ like expectations in marriage. But i will be teaching my children to not expect too much. I think my parents did a poor job of preparing us for the reality that most marriages aren’t/weren’t like theirs. I know that I entered into marriage expecting sex to be a part of it because thats what we were taught. Both by being directly told, and by being indirectly told with things like “don’t have sex until you are married!”. I plan on teaching my son that sex is a wonderful thing that you wait until you are married to do, but don’t expect it to happen just because you are married. I would have not appreciated that kind of guidance when i was young, but had i gotten it, i would have been better prepared for reality.

  7. Wild Honey

    Funny, it was a video series by ANDY Stanley early in our marriage that taught my husband and I that it is ok to have desires in marriage, but NOT to have expectations. It set both of us on a path of a lot of unhealthy habits of conflict avoidance that we are still unraveling.
    I think there is a balance. And I think the expectations Sheila outlines above are completely reasonable. Personally, I think what helps is being open about expectations up front instead of expecting your spouse to read your mind, then being disappointed when they don’t pull through in what they never realized they were supposed to pull through on in the first place.
    For example, if you always cook dinner and expect your spouse to take care of clean-up, has this been communicated directly and openly with specific words (“Hon, I would like that whoever cooks dinner gets a pass on doing dishes that night. Can we make this happen?”), or only obliquely hinted at with sighs of exasperation and sarcastic comments (“Well, I guess I’ll take care of the dishes AGAIN because you’re always SO TIRED after dinner.”).
    There is also the problem of unrealistic expectations, and how to respectfully communicate through that. Our pastor was recently teaching a marital communications class. The (problematic) defenition of good communication was “Good communication is when the listener responds how you want them to.” Putting myself in the shoes of the listener, I asked “How do you tell your spouse when they have unrealistic expectations?” A blank stare was the unhelpful answer.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great thoughts, Wild Honey! Yes, expectations about things like housework or dinner or dishes are on a very different plane than simply expecting that someone will fulfill their vows and care about you. I do think some of those things count more as desires, but also that expecting someone to fulfill their vows isn’t unreasonable. We need to be able to discern the difference between the two!

  8. Andrea

    Let’s counter this false teaching with “sparrow theology.”
    (I googled it and it’s not a thing. Yet. So let’s make it a thing.)

  9. Andrea

    Website not allowing me to post comment directly under one I’m replying to. This is in reply to “worm theology.”

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I know! We’ve identified the problem, and Connor is testing the site so that stuff won’t break when he puts in the fix. Sorry about that!

  10. Unmet expectations versus boundaries?

    We have been dealing with broken trust and betrayal issues due to years and years of hidden porn use. We are 3 months into our healing journey. He gets angry and passive aggressive because I am not ready to wear lingerie or make efforts for him to notice me. He says it is okay for him to have those expectations and it is okay for him to feel hurt and resentful when they are not met.
    I am just learning to set boundaries and to be assertive with my own healing and needs. I feel like his expectations are selfish and don’t match where we are at in our healing process.
    We have sex at least once a week and things will seem good until he has one of these passive aggressive meltdowns.
    Is it selfish of me to not want that in our relationship right now? Is it unrealistic for his visual desires to move to the back burner until the trust is rebuilt? I don’t mean to be perpetually “punishing” him as he puts it but I want to feel safe and vulnerable and make those efforts when I feel the desire to. And I’m just not there yet.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It is totally not selfish. You are only 3 months into your healing journey. If he was addicted to porn and had major betrayal, and then he wants you to wear lingerie, then he likely has not gotten over the porn mindset. (Lingerie’s not bad at all, but a porn user trying to develop a healthy view of sex will realize that this is a stumbling block for him).
      I’d advise that you read my post on the 4 stages of recovery from porn. It shows that sex is the LAST stage, and it doesn’t sound like you’ve fully gone through the other stages yet. It’s okay to want your boundaries and to want to feel safe. And I’m so, so sorry that you are walking this road. So sorry.


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