Clarifying expectations is vital

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I HAVE been reading and thinking about expectations in the context of marriage, and what interests me in the definition supplied by the Oxford Dictionary is the conviction that an expectation is something that is virtually certain, based on what someone believes.

ex¦pect|ation (noun) A strong belief that something will happen or be the case.

Every relationship is influenced by expectations – parents and children, husbands and wives, close friendships – and when expectations are not met tensions begin to surface.

“You didn’t call me on my birthday – don’t I matter to you?”

“Your school report tells me you are not trying – why can’t you apply yourself like Melinda?”

“We have missed the garbage pick up again – why can’t you remember to put the bins out?”

An author I read recently pointed out that “we expect other people to know what we want before we say it” and this is where expectations create problems in relationships.

Karen and I learnt early in our marriage the value of clearly communicating our expectations to each other in loving ways, even in the seemingly insignificant things.

I am a bit OCD when it comes to the way I like to have my shirts hung in the wardrobe – all in the same direction which makes it easier when you take them out – so imagine my surprise when I discovered that the girl I married hung them in there any old way!

I had a choice. I could simply “suck it up” and learn to adapt or I could have a potentially embarrassing conversation with my then young bride and explain to her my preference. (I say embarrassing because I genuinely feared that she would think I was some sort of pedantic, shirt hanging wardrobe loony!)

So I approached her sensitively, explained that it probably seemed silly to her, that I was not angry but would she mind if…? And her response? She had a quiet, understanding laugh about it (we both did), thanked me for telling her and said she didn’t mind hanging them my way at all.

The way we both approached that seemingly insignificant situation has become a foundation for our marriage that we have both endeavoured to build upon for over 34 years. That does not mean that we have always got it right but the commitment to be clear with each other in communicating our expectations in loving and humble ways is stronger than it has ever been.

How do we clarify expectations?

In her marriage enrichment program, The Third Option, Pat Ennis points out expectations in a relationship “are only valid when they have been mutually agreed upon” and to clarify expectations couples need to ask some important questions:
“Did either of us know that we had this expectation?”
“Is it reasonable?”
“Have we told each other about it or have we just assumed the other person should know?”

Such questions are important when considered in the light of the definition that I gave at the top of this page. If I have a “strong belief” that Karen should respond in a certain way and I think it “will happen”, what happens to me emotionally when she doesn’t do as I expected?

I might become angry, hurt, disappointed…or all of these! But if she is unaware of my expectation, if I have not clearly communicated it, then who is at fault? Instead of living in a fog of perpetual disappointment because I think she keeps on letting me down, I must take the time to lovingly and graciously communicate my expectations to her as well as asking myself if they are reasonable and something that we can both agree upon.

Unclear and unreasonable expectations can profoundly damage any relationship so taking the time as a couple to share and agree on each other’s expectations will not only enrich your marriage, it just makes good sense!

Best marriage gifts at Christmas

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DESPITE our best attempts it is difficult not to think about gifts when Christmas comes around each year and this is especially true if you have young children! There are also many voices that compete for our attention at Christmas and among them is the one that cries, “Let’s remember the true meaning of Christmas!” I agree with that sentiment but I want to ask the question – how many of us take that seriously?

I think many of us agree with the suggestion but deep down we know that there are expectations from others that we will be giving out presents and we also have an expectation that we will receive gifts.

Perhaps what is needed is a shift in our thinking about what a gift really is as well as recognizing the many gifts that we already have, so as a couple this Christmas why not think in terms of one of those gifts that you have – the wonderful and enriching gift of intimacy?

Why should a couple think of intimacy as a gift?

Because it is the gift of companionship. As a couple you have both been blessed to not go through life alone. You have been gifted with a friend with whom you can do life with! Solomon described it well when he said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” Loneliness is the only companion many will know at Christmas so be thankful for the friend by your side with whom you not only share Christmas but life as well.

It is also the gift of presence. True intimacy is so much more than merely talking with someone at a deeper level. It is also about giving the other person the gift of yourself. It is so easy to give a person the impression that you are listening to them when in reality you are thinking about being somewhere else or about what you want to say next. But presence in intimacy involves empathy, interest and genuine concern for the other person.

And it is the gift of oneness. Intimacy between a couple brings a sense of completeness; that the one I am married to makes me a stronger person and the sense that together there is no challenge too great for us to face. True oneness provides support for each other in difficult times and the security of knowing that you are deeply loved by another.

And this wonderful gift is closely tied to the true meaning of Christmas! For Christmas is the time when we are reminded of the gift by God of His Son, Jesus, to the world. His Son who would grow to manhood, point people back to His Father and ultimately die for their sin that they – and we- might experience intimacy and relationship with God.

Through Jesus we experience companionship. He walked through the same, difficult world that we do – He is not a stranger to our pain. He experienced rejection, weakness and suffering but never stopped caring for, loving or healing hurting people.

He was present with us. More than that, He was God present with us and proved beyond doubt that God loves us and is concerned for us. How easily He could have remained aloof from our pain but instead, He walked among us and saw firsthand what sin, suffering and injustice had done to the world.

And He offers us oneness. Through His life and death the door is opened up for us to know God personally and deeply and a relationship that is defined by love not fear.

Yes, let us remember “the true meaning of Christmas” but in doing so let us also be prepared to change our focus by being thankful for its presence in our lives and for the gift of knowing God through His Son Jesus.

A choice between vulnerability and selfishness

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M. SCOTT PECK, author of The Road Less Travelled, once stated that we are all born narcissists and that our goal as we journey through life is to grow out of that narcissism, out of loving and living for ourselves.

I agree with Peck! Each of us can choose to journey through life independently, focused only on ourselves or we can seek to reach out to people and enter into meaningful relationships with them.

However, if we choose the unselfish path, which requires intimacy, then we must recognize that there is a cost involved in pursuing it.

If you want to go deep in your relationship with your spouse then it is going to require that you be vulnerable. Most of us are good at conversations that revolve around simple pleasantries – “Hi, how are you? I’m fine thanks!” Some of us are quite adept at talking about other people! But when it comes to sharing things such as our ideas about a topic of how we feel about things we run a mile!

WHY DO WE RUN?

Because when we share our ideas or our feelings we know that risk is involved. There is the risk that the person we are talking to may scoff at our idea or worse, repudiate, laugh at or reject our feelings. For some people this is too great a risk to run and so they withdraw from relating to a person at an intimate level.

Some of us are just plainly not interested. The idea of sitting and listening to someone frightens us because we sense that something may be required of us – that there will be an expectation that we must also share about ourselves with the other person.

Rather than do that we simply stop interacting with people. A frustrated wife once asked her counselor if she had ever heard of “the great stone face”. “I believe I have” replied the counselor. “Well, I’m married to him” said the wife, “He doesn’t listen and he doesn’t talk!” I don’t know what was driving the husband to be like that but it was pretty clear that he was not interested in an intimate relationship with his wife.

Others are simply just too tired for relationship. They spend all day in a demanding job or they have been home all day catering to the incessant demands of young children and day’s end finds them with an emotional tank so low that they have nothing more to give to their spouse.

All of this brings me back to my original thought: we are all born narcissists. In other words, we are more inclined to look after our own needs than the needs of others. I would suggest that when we choose not to be vulnerable or we are not interested in others then we are being selfish.

If we really desire closeness in our marriages or with others then we are going to have to do some hard work.

We will choose to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to others and to share ourselves with them.

Instead of a callous indifference toward people we will choose to listen and to show an active interest in them and their needs.

And sometimes it will require that at the end of a busy day, despite our own tiredness, we will choose to sit down with our spouse and ask them how they are feeling, what they are struggling with, what was the highlight of their day and give them the gift of both our time and presence.

Ebenezer Scrooge was described by Dickens as being “as solitary as an oyster” – what a desperately lonely character he was until he realized how miserable he had become by shutting people out of his life.

Intimacy is costly because it requires that we stop focusing on ourselves and start engaging with people in life-giving ways.

But then, who wants to live as an oyster?

Satisfying intimacy requires vulnerability and risk

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A COMMON QUESTION that will be asked around thousands of meal tables tonight will be, “How was your day?” If I was a gambling man I can almost guarantee that the answer will be something like, “Fine, how was yours?”

In this age of instant global connection via social media it seems to me that we have never been more distant in our understanding of each other.

We regularly hear stories of people who have thousands of online ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ but in the deepest part of their soul they long for just one person with whom they can connect with at an emotional and personal level.

This hidden loneliness is often found in many marriages where the couple may have lived under the same roof for decades but have never made the soul connection that is so essential to healthy intimacy in marriage.

The intimacy I am referring to is not sexual or physical. I mean an intimacy that frees two people to be open and honest with each and which produces a deep level of trust that lasts for a lifetime.

It is generally held by the communication experts that there are five levels of communication that progressively build upon each other: it begins with cliché conversation and then moves on to reporting the facts about others. From that point you start to move into areas that require a greater level of disclosure about yourself. You begin to share your ideas, then your feelings (an extremely vulnerable place to be) until you arrive at what is described as peak communication – the place where you are totally open and honest with the other person.

I think many people want to be at that place with another person – peak communication – but they simply don’t know how to get there. This was highlighted for me in an article I read recently about a married couple who were struggling with this, and in telling their story shared how they learned to ask each other questions that required answers that went beyond the surface. In other words, they stopped asking each other “how was your day?”!

Kate McCombs blogs that there are six questions that couples can experiment with that can open up conversation between people and avoid the tired old “how was your day?” routine. She suggests the following:

”Did you have any victories that you want to share?”

“Were there any challenges that you want empathy about?”

”Were there any surprisingly fun moments in your day?”

”Did you have any nice connections with your colleagues?”

”What was frustrating about your day?”

”Now that you’re home, is there anything you’d love to brag about?” (Because we can’t always do this with colleagues but it is great when we can with partners.)

As you read this you may be thinking to yourself that the questions above seem a little forced. That’s okay – experiment with them and word them in a way that makes them feel more like you. But don’t dismiss them.

Questions like these show that a level of thought has gone into them and that you are genuinely interested in the other person.

They also require that the other person takes the time to think through their answer rather than slipping into the old cliché of “Everything is fine, how about you?”

Politeness is fine, but marriages need to be built on more than mere politeness in order for intimacy to flourish!

And intimacy requires cost. It will cost you to ask and answer questions like these because you are prepared to risk being vulnerable with another human being. But it is a risk worth taking!

You will always be a father and grandfather

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“Gramps! Gramps! Can we do super hero and dragging please?” Over the past two months this has been a constant question that I have heard from the lips of my grandchildren during their stay with us.

What, exactly, is “super hero and dragging” I hear you ask? It involves me picking up each of my grandchildren (there are four in this particular family!), holding them in the plank position while I simulate flying them around the house Superman style on their way to bed. The dragging bit was where they held onto my ankles and I would drag them across our slippery wooden floors.

This has been my regular, night time routine for each one of them while their family has stayed with us as they prepare to move east for a few years.

Why am I telling you this?

Because while they have been living with us I have been reminded that you never stop being a father, never.

Having six extra people living in our house for two months, four of them under the age of seven, has been challenging but it has also been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in a long time.

It would have been tempting to have “checked out” when they all descended on my family back in early June and just wait out the next two months until they left for the East Coast. But I chose to engage with them and make this as enjoyable a time for all of us as possible.

And so I discovered many things.

I discovered that my one-year-old grandson has an adorable smile that lights up when you do one of those stupid things that grandfathers are renowned for.

I learned that my three-year-old grandson expresses his gratitude and love by throwing his arms around you and giving you a big hug.

I found out that my five-year-old granddaughter cannot stop giggling as you “super hero” her around the house.

And I also learned that my eldest granddaughter, though excited about moving to the other side of the country was also understandably sad to be leaving her extended family and friends behind.

I would have missed all this and more if I had simply chosen to withdraw into myself and ride things out until they left – I’m glad I chose to engage with them.

Let me speak to you as one Dad (and Grandfather) to another. I know that you are busy and that at the end of the day you need some space when you arrive home. Coming home to a house full of excited (sometimes whinging!) kids is no picnic. I have been in fairly demanding roles for most of my working life so I understand what this feels like.

But the reality is that we only have the briefest of moments with our children. It’s a cliché but it’s also true – they really do grow up quickly!

Don’t abdicate the role that you have as a Dad or a Grandfather to someone else. Only you can be that person in their lives. So get involved with your kids and resolve to do something stupid with them as well, like “super hero” them to bed!

Is it worth it? The sad look in my granddaughter’s eyes as she told me the day she left that “we couldn’t do the ‘super hero and dragging’ tonight” tells me it is.

You’re a Dad. You have been blessed with beautiful kids. Don’t waste a minute of it!