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Marriages should have realistic expectations

Published: October 9, 2015   
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

Happiness is determined by our expectations and our ability to notice and rejoice in little things. If our expectations are modest, life will usually exceed our expectations and we will be happy; if our expectations are unrealistic, we end up disappointed.

For instance, I spent the summer of 1979 in Kenya and most of the people in our parish lived in tiny homes with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. But since that was the only life they knew, they didn’t expect anything else and so weren’t disappointed in their expectations and indeed rejoiced in what they did have — they were by and large happy.

By contrast, when I came home I was struck by how unhappy many Americans are: Young couples disappointed that their starter home will not be as nice as they had hoped, employees angry that their boss isn’t more caring, parents disappointed that their children are just average, adults unable to cope with an elderly parent’s death. Other people are happy to have a home at all, to have a job at all, to have children at all, to have had their parents as long as they did.

It’s a matter of expectations and being able to notice and rejoice in the little blessings of life. And the same thing is true about happiness in marriage.

If we take the ideal to be the minimum, we should not be surprised when our spouse can’t meet our unrealistic expectations.

In today’s Gospel the Pharisees test Jesus by asking him whether it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. This was an attempt to destroy his popularity because a strict position on divorce would obviously be unpopular with the crowds, among whom were undoubtedly some divorcees and others stuck in unhappy marriages.

But popular or not, Jesus sticks with the truth that divorce does not end a valid marriage. Elsewhere Paul will address invalid marriages, the annulment of marriages missing something needed for validity. But Jesus teaches that if a marriage is valid, divorce may end its civil effects, split up the property, but it does not end its spiritual bond — and sex with anyone else is adultery. A very unpopular position for Jesus to take in a society like our own where divorce also was common.

Why is it that so many marriages are so unhappy that 50 percent end in divorce? There are lots of reasons, some of which are understandable and even unavoidable — say in the case of domestic violence — but often the problem is simply that people had unrealistic expectations that sabotaged their marriage right from the start, coupled with an inability to notice and rejoice in the small blessings of daily life. Some expect their spouse to do what only God can do: To meet all their needs for security, support and closeness.

If we take the ideal to be the minimum, we should not be surprised when our spouse can’t meet our unrealistic expectations. All of us have defects and so all marriages are less than ideal and to expect otherwise is self-defeating.

A week ago I was in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families in which eloquent speakers gave insightful presentations touching on many of the cultural factors that have led to the breakdown of the family and resources for healing broken families and broken hearts. This culminated in an outdoor Mass with Pope Francis last Sunday in which an estimated 1 million people participated.

In this Mass Pope Francis focused on tenderness and noticing all of the little miracles of everyday life, and on how faith opens for us a “‘window’ to the presence and working of the Spirit.” Given the Gospel we have today, I would like to draw your attention especially to these words.

He said faith “shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. ‘Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded’, says Jesus (cf. Mark 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children, by brothers and sisters. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work.

“Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to grow in faith.”

Why was it that in the days of arranged marriages there was so little divorce? Part of the reason was that social pressure and mutual need kept divorce from even being an option for most people. Also, life expectancy was so short that few couples had to endure an unhappy marriage for very long!

But a more important reason was that peoples’ expectations were modest. Like with Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” people married not for romance, but rather for companionship — to raise a family, to accomplish things that neither could do alone.

As we learn in Tevye’s song “Do you love me?” it was only after 39 years of marriage that he and his wife even begin to ask the question of whether they have fallen in love with each other in a romantic sense — in arranged marriages, love was a hoped-for fruit of marriage, not a pre-condition for marriage. And amid all their many troubles they discovered they were happy.

Why? Their expectations were modest, so they were able to take troubles in stride and because life exceeded their modest expectations, they were grateful. Indeed, in their song, they list a whole series of small miracles experienced in their 39 years together. Homely gestures. Un-dramatic expressions of tenderness and care. Preparing meals, doing laundry, raising children, earning a living.

Does this mean we should lower our standards? Of course not, but it may mean we should have more realistic expectations. A glass that is half empty has just as much in it as a glass that is half full, it’s all a matter of how you look at the glass.

In this as in so many other areas of life, happiness is determined by our expectations.

Audio files from Bishop Taylor’s homilies are regularly posted in English and Spanish on the diocesan website. Listen to them here.

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