Every couple has their ups and downs.
I know my husband will squirm seeing this title. He’s not as overshare-y as me. Yet this is a really important topic and I wanted to touch on it because it’s something I say to people until I am blue in the face. I say it a lot because learning to drop expectations saved my marriage, and my sanity.
(The learning bit is important – this does not happen overnight).
I Always Say This Phrase
This week I’ve seen a few of my friends individually on separate occasions. Each time I have met up with the girls for an outdoor walk at a social distance, our conversation always turns to our husbands and I always end up repeating this phrase.
As usual, it’s inspired my #WankyQuoteWednesday
I Was Ready to Divorce
In 2015, at the start of the decline of my mental health, I was done.
I’d seen a divorce lawyer. I had somewhere else to live. I was unhappy in my marriage and I was over it.
My husband did not pay me compliments.
My husband did not buy me gifts.
My husband did not do his fair share of the housework.
My husband did not help out with our son.
Writing that out makes me feel nauseous.
I was WRONG.
When we would argue, the same statements would get hurled verbally at one another. My husband’s favourite one was “You’re setting me up to fail!” and it used to make me rage and boil inside with anger.
How could I be setting him up to fail?
He should know I need affection and attention
He should know to buy me at least a card on Mother’s Day, or buy me a nice gift on my birthday.
He should know to clean the toilets or put the washing away.
He should offer to bath our son, or make his dinner or read his bedtime stories to him.
Why should I tell him to do that? Why should I be the one doing it all myself?!
My outbursts would appear out of the blue. I’d go into my own head for days, silent and moody and despite my husband repeatedly asking me what was wrong, I would carry on my silent treatment, seethe and grind my teeth at his mere presence and silently scream in my head “Why don’t you fucking help me?!?”
Then the arguments would start. I would scream at him, tears rolling angrily down my face and my fists in a ball and my teeth gritted and clenched. My back teeth are actually smooth. There are no grooves and bumps like the average person would have. I spent the first five years of my son’s life clenching my teeth in anger, frustration and disappointment. I was so stressed out that I could hardly sleep as I’d grind my teeth all night. Sometimes, as I slide my tongue over their smooth surface now, I smile with faint sadness and shame at how I caused all of this upset. For me, for my husband and for my son who would often witness it. I smile because I changed it, got over it and made things better.
By late 2015 when my anger had built to epic proportions, I gave my husband an ultimatum. Change or I was leaving. I can’t remember much of this time. I struggle to recall lots of things between having my son and my nervous breakdown in 2016 and this is one of those periods that are blurred and confused. Mainly because I think I played this scenario out in my head so many times, I’m not sure what is the reality and what is my imagined state.
All I do remember though is agreeing to give him a chance, to start to tell him what I needed and not give the silent treatment and not “Set him up to fail.”
My Year of Personal Development
In 2016 I started what I now know to be my year of personal development. It started with me reading ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ which led to learning about Bullet Journaling which led to reading The Miracle Morning and starting a morning routine for the first time in my life. I’ve written and spoke about it many times before. It was life-changing. I learned about meditation, I journaled and recited affirmations. I visualised my future. I would cry as I sat doing my visualisations. My future always always involved my husband and I vowed that I would fight for our marriage. I vowed to make him change.
The thing is, it was me who needed to change.
I started to feel less stressed as my mornings were planned and I felt more organised. I participated in a fitness challenge, lost lots of weight and felt my self-esteem soar. My husband had an opportunity to possibly move areas with his job, so I made the decision to leave mine and go freelance. I worked on my business in my ‘miracle’ mornings and I had a plan. My energy was more positive. As such, I was probably easier to live with. I did start to ask for the help I wanted and needed.
Towards the end of 2016, I started being coached. Being honest and open about my feelings and having a safe space to explore my behaviour was new to me but extremely eye-opening and effective. I undid a lot of old limiting beliefs and blocks from my childhood. I started to see that I had been stuck in a victim mentality for a long time. I was constantly blaming everyone else for my problems, lack of self-esteem and self-worth issues. Especially my husband.
Expectation is the Thief of All Joy
I think it was the coach Shari Teigman who I first heard say the phrase “Expectation is the thief of all joy”. I didn’t really understand it at first until it was explained. What was I expecting to happen in many scenarios in my life and how did I feel when it didn’t? Because when you expect things to be or go a certain way, when they don’t go in the way you expected, that’s when you ultimately end up unhappy.
When you place an expectation on something, you visualise it in your mind before it has happened. So when my reality didn’t meet the expected outcome I had visualised in my mind, and if it did not meet the impossibly high standards I had imagined, I would end up unhappy.
So in order to be happy, you have to do the opposite. When you drop all expectations on someone or something, you can’t be unhappy when your prediction of the future (your expectation) does not meet the reality of the present.
It took me a while and a LOT of thinking and soul searching to get my head around this. My husband was right. I WAS setting him up to fail. By not explicitly asking him what I needed from him, he wouldn’t always know how to help and support me. By giving him the silent treatment I was starving any chance he had of meeting my expectations that, by this point, had snowballed into such a monster that I was ready to divorce him!
The First Mother’s Day
In March 2011, it was my first Mother’s Day. I had been so excited about this event. I imagined flowers and chocolates, breakfast in bed and a day off minding Blake who was only four months at the time.
I remember waking up and there being nothing. Thinking he was pulling my leg, I stayed in bed as he got up, expecting to hear the chink of plates and the whir of the coffee machine. Nothing.
By 10 am when it was time to get dressed to leave to drop Mother’s Day presents off at our mum’s and nan’s houses I realised it just wasn’t happening for me that day. I sat and did my hair and cried. I’d been breastfeeding exclusively, hadn’t slept through the night once and I was thoroughly exhausted. There I sat doing my hair, blow-drying it in a sideways sweep to hide my puffy eyes and red blotchy cheeks. I wore my glasses that day as I didn’t want anyone to notice.
I was quiet and subdued for the whole day. “What’s up with you?” Shaun would ask as we hopped back in the car to go to the next relative’s house. At my mum’s house, my sister was there with her daughter. “Happy Mother’s Day!” Shaun said to my mum and then he kissed my sister and said “Ooh it’s your first isn’t it Rachel? Happy Mother’s Day. Oh and you Gem, I almost forgot! It’s your first one too! Happy mother’s day!” as he kissed me on the cheek. I made my excuses to go to the loo and cry again. He’d only just realised.
The whole day continued like this until we got home.
Shaun asked me multiple times what was wrong and I just kept repeating “I’m just tired” in a quiet, somewhat pathetic out of character voice.
Shaun sat on the sofa. I made the dinner and after we’d eaten in silence and I’d fed Blake, I bathed the baby upstairs.
Shaun came into the bathroom and by this point, he was fed up with my low mood “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong or not??”. The tears turned on and poured out of me like the bath had done a moment before. I was inconsolable as Shaun stood there looking confused at his very very upset wife and having no clue what happened.
“It was my first Mother’s day.”
“I know, I said it to you at your Mum’s.”
“But you didn’t do anything for me!” I wailed back.
And then he said something that I think about so often, even now…
“You’re not my mum. Was I supposed to do something for you? I didn’t know? It’s Mother’s Day but you’re not my mum.”
I do recall going ballistic about this but I look back now and I can recall the sadness in his face as he realised my upset had been perceived to be caused by him.
I had just expected him to know to do something special. I actually held this against him for a long long time. I brought it up often, for many years, as an example of a time he’d let me down, but the truth is, I let myself down.
My husband is the eldest of three boys. They aren’t a present giving family. Shaun’s mum never expects anything and so gift giving and making a fuss hasn’t been a ‘thing’ in their family at all. My husband had NO IDEA he was supposed to do anything for me that day. Literally, zero clue. Had I hinted that I expected something or given him a cheeky reminder about it or said “This Sunday, it’s my mother’s day too so you’re looking after the baby” then this whole sorry scenario would’ve been avoided. Instead, it was ME who caused myself such utter pain and suffering all day (and every time I thought of this day for years afterwards). If I’d just spoken up that morning, the day would’ve been different.
Expectation is the Thief of All Joy
My husband does not do things to purposely annoy me. So, why do I EXPECT him to do things he doesn’t do naturally and THEN get pissed off? In 13 years of being together, he has hardly put clothes away. He just hates doing it. If I EXPECT him to do it magically, without being asked, it won’t happen. I have to be really clear and ask him for help. Yes, he’ll be a little brat and kick-off about it, but in asking for the help, I’m most likely to get the help. Or I can wait for him to want to do this off his own back, to expect that he will know to do it, want to do it, to take action and then just get ragey angry when he, once again, doesn’t do it. He doesn’t rage when I leave my clothes and makeup and shit everywhere – he doesn’t have an expectation that I SHOULD sort it out. Double standards or what?
I can look back at the first year of my son’s life and feel such sadness at the way expectation robbed me of a lot of joy. Instead of having an honest chat about where he could support me, where I felt like I was struggling and how we could have more family harmony I just EXPECTED him to know. He’d not been a dad before. He’d not been married before. He’d never actually lived with anyone other than his family before we got together. So this was even more new to him than me.
I did set him up to fail, time after time after time. When I learned that and I learned how much my own perceived expectation was causing me so much unhappiness, I did start to undo it.
What Are You Expecting?
We all expect a lot more than we realise. I’ve used my marriage here as an example but I’ve also expected things of colleagues, bosses, friends, family and myself. When those expectations were not met, it caused stress and unhappiness.
Chatting to my friends over the last few days, it seems we’ve picked up a lot of expectations in lockdown.
Let me ask you – where are you expecting things to happen in a certain way and where are you ultimately left disappointed?
What unrealistic expectations are you putting on other people?
Where are you wishing and wanting someone to behave in a certain way or do something, but you’re not actually asking them clearly and outright from a place of love and understanding WHY it is important to you?
When I unpicked and unravelled my own unrealistic expectations on my husband that had spanned so many years, I felt such regret. If anyone should be attempting to divorce anyone else, it should’ve been him towards me. All my husband ever did was love me unconditionally, exactly as I was. All I did was expect him to know what I was thinking, how to be, what to do and what to say to make me happy. He was right, I “set him up to fail” as he explained in all those arguments so many times.
Since the end of 2016, I’ve been on a wanky ‘journey’ of self-discovery that has changed my life and the way that I think. Interestingly, I had to take a personality test today and was shocked but not really surprised to see that my personality type had changed in the last four years. I do think differently these days, I do watch my own judgements and expectations and thoughts of trying to change people. It isn’t always easy but I’m learning to accept people for who they are. If you do not expect anything of anyone, you cannot be left disappointed. That isn’t defeatist, it’s common sense!
I’m delighted to say that since I changed, our marriage changed. My husband is still the same laid back, happy-go-lucky guy I fell in love with when I bumped into him in Creamfields in 2007. It took for me to have a nervous breakdown to realise that he was as close as you can get to perfect all along. I’ve fallen in love with him all over again in these past few years. Our communication style is open, honest and supportive. We each respect the needs of the other, we each respect that we are two different people but we each come together stronger than ever having dropped all expectations.
It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t empty the dishwasher without being prompted.
It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t offer to take Blake out when he can see I’m on a deadline.
It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t get me an elaborate gift for a special occasion.
I can just ask him to do any one of those things and he will do it now. Happiness and harmony all round!
I don’t need to fantasise and have an expectation of a perfect life because we all know a perfect life does not exist.
Cut yourself and others some slack.
Drop the expectations.
Ask honestly for what you need (without nagging, manipulating, being a brat or being emotional).
See what happens and how life improves.
Got any thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments.
Gemma Ray is a BBC Radio presenter, best selling author, communications coach and always the most filthy person in a WhatsApp group chat. Gemma tells it like it is and opens up about the stuff most people would never even dare admit to themselves, let alone put out in public.
Join Gemma on a refreshingly honest, powerful and inspirational journey of self love, self belief and self trust through her books, blog, free Facebook accountability group and courses where she helps members take action on their goals.
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