The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Your happiness comes from realistic expectations

Published: October 11, 2018   
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Oct. 7.

Happiness is determined by our expectations. 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 weren’t disappointed in their expectations — and since they were better off than previous generations (no war, enough food and school for their kids) they were 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.

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

It’s a matter of expectations. And the same thing is true about happiness in marriage.

In today’s Gospel the Pharisees test Jesus by asking him whether it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. This test was also an attempt to destroy his popularity because everyone already knew that the law allowed divorce and a strict position on divorce would obviously be unpopular with the crowds, among whom were naturally some divorcees.

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, thus freeing one to attempt marriage for the first time again. 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 where divorce was common.

Why is it so many American marriages are so unhappy that 50 percent end in divorce? There are lots of reasons, some of which are understandable, but often the problem is simply that people had unrealistic expectations that sabotaged their marriage right from the start. Some expect their spouse to do what only God can do: to meet all their needs for security, support and closeness — and so doom themselves to disappointment.

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.

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 love, 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 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.

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.

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