The Secret of a Happy Marriage? Low Expectations
August 8, 2022
Since I got married last October, I’ve been thinking a lot about divorce. Not in a “serving papers” way, but in the sense that nothing is impossible and it’s good to be prepared. Divorce is something that could never have happened to me before the wedding – but now there’s a chance that it’s in my future. Just as some people believe there’s no better way of appreciating life than by contemplating the inevitability of death (“You might get knocked down by a bus tomorrow!” Not if I stick to heavily pedestrianised areas!), I think that the best way of appreciating the best bits of my relationship is to remind myself that we’re both free to leave at any time.
Reader, I married him hoping that it will last for ever, but knowing that it’s going to be hard, because life is hard. The variables are infinite – loved ones might get seriously ill, we might get ill, one of us could do something thoughtless and hurtful and stupid that changes the nature of the relationship, we might end up growing apart instead of growing together. Surely any idiot knows that the romantic bits – endless minibreaks and holding in your farts – happen in the six months after you meet. Marriage is all “Can you get a birthday present for my mum? By the way, the toilet’s broken and we’ve just had a council tax bill for 800 quid.”
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So I’m not surprised by the results of a recent study which show that the higher a couple’s expectations of marriage, the more likely the union was doomed to failure. When couples had low expectations that were easily reached, they were happier than the couples who had higher expectations, despite having the same needs met.
The study surmised: “Among spouses who either reported less severe problems or were in marriages observed to be characterised by lower levels of destructive behaviour, standards were positively associated with satisfaction over time,” but that bringing impossibly high expectations to marriage was as damaging as undermining each other, or communicating badly.
Dr James McNulty, the psychologist in charge of the research, advises newlyweds to “realise their strengths and weaknesses and calibrate their standards accordingly”, explaining that the problems occur when couples experience “a mismatch between what they demand and what they can actually attain”.
The lesson is obvious. Love the one you’re wedded to, not the tidier, healthier, cleverer, more committed person you hope marriage might make them. If they’re always inappropriate and bad mannered, they won’t be cured of it just because all of your relatives have bought you flatware from a John Lewis list .
I know I’m incredibly lucky to have met my husband in the UK, in 2015. In other countries and other eras, marriage hasn’t been a choice for women but an inevitability. Many hoped that courtship, and the chance to live away from home, would lead to slightly more independence and fun. In some households, you’re still better off as a matriarch than as an adult female child. But that only reinforces my point.
If you’re marrying in the belief that it will make your life significantly better, then things probably aren’t great to begin with.
Literature is littered with characters who have entered disastrous marriages in the failed pursuit of wealth and adventure. Your Becky Sharps and Emma Bovarysstart unions in the hope that they will allow them to realise personal ambitions, and it never ends well.
I’m optimistic for my own marriage because I have no hopes for social betterment, grand balls, or private jets. I married my husband knowing that we have the same idea of what constitutes a good time. We believe there is no greater state of wedded bliss than lying on a sofa with your head on your spouse’s bottom, and six hours of QI repeats scheduled. If I were to dare to dream and get ideas above my station, I might hope that one day we could replace our customary bag of own-brand crisps with a big sack of Kettle Chips.
Ultimately, a marriage can only ever be as good as the people in it. You can’t make coq au vin with a can of Red Stripe and a £1.99 six-piece selection from Chicken Cottage, but you’ll have a nicer dinner if you appreciate the tasty charm of your raw ingredients instead of moaning about their lack of nutritional value. My greatest ambition for my marriage is that we keep treating each other with as much tenderness and respect as we did when we first met, and that we love each other enough to admit it’s time to call it a day if we ever can no longer do this. I hope it will never happen, but at least when it comes to love, a pessimist is never disappointed.
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