Do False Expectations Of Marriage Cause Stepfamily Problems?

Posted at 17:51pm on 8th July 2009

What follows is an excerpt from the soon to be published revised and updated edition of Mel's book, Stepfamilies.

It is a false premise to expect that any marriage can ever answer all of our needs. To think otherwise is a totally unrealistic ideal which is doomed to disappointment. And this, perhaps, is one of the prime reasons for the failure of so many marriages.

False expectations can lead a man to believe that his wife should be all things to him: chief cook and bottle washer, social and administrative secretary, nanny and chauffeuse and, above all, an alluring and willing sex-siren - without help, and at all times of the day or night. To all such errant husbands, James Dobson, eminent psychiatrist and prolific writer, has plenty to say in his excellent books and videos on Family Focus.

Having rebuked men for their insensitivity and work-oriented - rather than relationship-oriented - priorities, he then turns his attention upon the ladies. Wives with good, steady, but busy and uncommunicative husbands cannot expect to depend upon them to feed their emotional starvation, he says. This is because they may be quite unable to do so. Unable! Not unwilling. His solution is for women to look to other women for the emotional support they need and crave.


In different cultures and times, friendships among women occurred quite naturally - in marriage preparation; in midwifery; in dressing the dead; and in everyday tasks like doing the laundry at the riverside; fetching water from the well; buying and selling at the marketplace. However, with the rites of passage now largely male-dominated, the advent of career women, and a general demise in community, we’ve become far more isolated. Time spent with other women rarely occurs naturally, and so often has to be built into our lives by a deliberate effort on our part.


In addition, marriage itself has changed. With greater equality and companionship, our feeling is that it’s somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘disloyal’ to expect some of our needs to be met by anyone other than our spouse. Rather than accept that this is a romantic delusion, when those needs go unmet we tend to believe that this was due to some failure in either our partner or ourselves. ‘If only I’d been more ...this or that,’ we say. Or, ‘if only he/she had been more... attentive... sexy... sociable...’

For those of us for whom remarriage is a reality, there is the temptation of thinking: this time... ‘This time,’ we resolve, ‘it will all come right.’ This time we/he/she are ... older and wiser... richer or slimmer... more successful, less ambitious. We’ve had our ‘colours done’; our teeth capped; or learned to drive. This time we know what we want in marriage. And we’re ‘getting’ what we want from the relationship.


But the truth is that ‘this time’ can only happen if we’ve changed our way of thinking. If we’re ‘giving’ as good as we’re ‘getting’ (in terms of loving, caring, forgiving) and understand the fine-tuning between the two. This time, we need to be sure that we’ve attracted and selected a partner who is totally different from the first. Because if we haven’t changed in this respect, then two, five or ten years down the line, we may find that, though we’ve presented ourselves with a new ‘lead’ (actor/actress), we’re in fact following the same old script, playing out the same old plot - with the same unmodified characters. As Carol discovered - just in time.

“After a few years of being on my own, I realised that I seemed to be gravitating towards men who were exactly like my ex-husband - business men who were macho, ambitious and successful. Suddenly I woke up to the fact that most were also predatory, sexist and had little interest in home life except when it suited. So when I met Gavin who was completely the opposite, I thought: Wonderful!

“To begin with it was. Wonderful, I mean. I used to tease him that in the first few years of our marriage we spent more time in DIY superstores than anywhere else - but the fact was that I was thrilled to have a husband who enjoyed doing things around the house. It was something we could do together.”

Gavin was an intensely practical man. He’d bottled up his feelings for years because that was how he’d been brought up - but that wasn’t too much of a problem. Carol was quite skilled in counselling and knew just how to draw him out. For his part, he was always willing to talk and explore the things that were important to their relationship. And he was affectionate - in a quiet sort of way.

“The trouble came when the money and euphoria of getting our home together ran out, and we had less to occupy us together. I found myself wanting him to be more masterful; more dynamic. He would always fall in with any suggestions I made - such as having a romantic meal out (or in) but he found it very difficult to take a lead in such things.”

Carol began to feel exasperated when Gavin wouldn’t take a lead in things outside the home, too. She started to criticise him and to feel slightly resentful that it always had to be her who made the first move. The more negative she felt, the less appealing his good traits appeared. His thrifty nature - which she’d applauded after the profligacy of her ex-husband - now began to look mean. His caution - which she’d once welcomed as security - became boring. Secretly she began to pick flaws in him.

“Then one day I woke up to the fact that I had no right to be judgmental, and that I was actually working against myself. Against what I wanted of my marriage.

“I had to remind myself that I fell in love with Gavin precisely because he was a gentle homeloving sort of person. I knew he couldn’t be those things and be the other things I thought I wanted him to be. If he wasn’t very ambitious in his job then that was all to the good because it meant we had more time together. And if he wasn’t very good at the romantic things - taking me out, or buying me gifts - then at least I could be thankful that neither was he chatting up other women, lavishing his mistresses with expensive presents, or buying things for me just as a sop to his conscience. All of which I’d had to endure in my first marriage.”

Gradually, Carol began to wonder if perhaps some of the reason why Gavin stayed in a nice safe job on the bottom rung was because he lacked confidence. Through her faith, she came to believe that if she built him up and encouraged him, he’d be less cautious. Less fearful of doing the wrong thing. She hadn’t bargained for quite how well it would work!

“He started his own business a few years ago - something he would never have had the nerve to do before. But he’s still the same nice easy man I married. And though I’d still like him to be a bit more demonstrative in his affection, and to instigate a few romantic elements in our lives, I feel safe and secure with him. I think I’ve learned to appreciate that it’s precisely because of his good points that he is as he is. You can’t be gentle and home loving - and at the same time be dynamic and ambitious, can you?”

Carol and Gavin recently celebrated their Silver Wedding Anniversary. Happily married and the best of friends, they rejoice in the way each has enhanced the other's life. And all because they have realistic expectations of marriage, and what it has to offer.


Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.

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