When the reality of marriage doesn’t meet our expectations, we tend to blame reality.
When it comes to marriage, we expect the fairy tale. Raised on Cinderella and Ozzie and Harriet, we’re convinced that marriage will solve all of our problems, our partner will meet all of our needs, and that we’ll live happily ever after.
But a great many of us don’t get the happily-ever-after part; we get divorced. So where did we go wrong?
Mary Laner thinks that we expect too much. A professor of sociology at Arizona State University, Laner says that when the marriage or the partner fails to live up to our ideals, we don’t recognize that our expectations were much too high. Instead, we blame our spouse or that particular relationship.
“We think that our partner can meet all our needs, know what we’re thinking, and love us even when we’re not terribly lovable. When those things don’t happen, then we blame our partner,” Laner says. “We think that maybe if we had a different spouse, it would be better.”
The ASU sociologist studied the marital expectations of unmarried college students. She compared their expectations with those of people who have been married for about 10 years. The significantly higher expectations held by the students, she says, come straight out of the “happily ever after” fantasy.
“Such irrationality can lead us to conclude that when the ‘thrill is gone,’ or when the marriage or partner doesn’t live up to our inflated ideals, divorce or abandonment of the marriage in some other form is the solution,” Laner says.
In fact, the divorce rate in the United States is just over half of the marriage rate. Many researchers, including Laner, lay at least part of the blame for this statistic on those unrealistic expectations. Laner points out that much of the existing marital therapy literature is concerned with the problem. And, she adds, many of us continue to take our zealous ideas of what marriage should be into the next relationship and the next, and so on.
“People who marry again following divorce, one might think, would not carry along inflated expectations,” Laner says. “Yet, these second and later marriages have higher divorce rates than do first marriages. As far as expectations are concerned, this may be a reflection of the primacy of hope over experience, followed once again by disillusionment.”