By David Hegg
I do a fair amount of marriage counseling and, more often than not, the troubles couples face materialize down the road, far from their initial cause. Something happens that doesn’t sit well, feelings are hurt, hurts aren’t discussed, bitterness forms, and the acid of bitterness grows as more disappointments are intentionally gathered and stored. Eventually, resentment puts down deep roots, conflict becomes commonplace, and division seems inevitable.
The long history of anger fueled by recurring disappointment can make those who once couldn’t stand to be apart now hate to be together. It happens all too often, and not just in marriages. Families, businesses, teams — almost every kind of relationship — can be corrupted when our expectations aren’t met. But the bigger problem is most often we fail to express our expectations at the right time and in the right way.
You can take this to the bank: Unexpressed expectations are hardly ever met, and unmet expectations are often the source of great conflict. If you don’t tell me what you expect of me, there is almost no chance I’ll live up to your expectations.
But before we can let others know what we expect, it must be determined just what we have a right to expect. As our sense of entitlement as a society grows, so do our expectations. Yet, many of our expectations are unreasonable and actually are the cause of many daily irritations. For example, given that we live in car-loving SoCal, is it ever reasonable to expect the freeways to be free of traffic? Is it ever reasonable to expect that every driver taking our route will be alert, courteous and safety-minded? Simple answer: No!
And what about our personal lives? Given that everyone we meet is dealing with their own harried schedule, personal weaknesses, frustrations and disappointments, is it reasonable to expect everyone to be having a good day? For everyone else to focus on our needs and wellbeing? Again, simple answer: No!
So, what do we have a right to expect, and how should we express our expectations? In marriage we have a right to expect that our spouse will live up to their marriage vows, for one thing. In good marriages the vows provide the basic ethic that is then more specifically filled in as spouses communicate with one another, speaking honestly, listening carefully, and coming to mutual agreements on important facets of their relationship.
The same is true in every other relationship. The basic virtues of human dignity and responsibility form the ground rules for human relationship at every level, or at least they should. As children we are taught the values of courtesy, honesty, compassion, humility and the virtue of serving one another. The Golden Rule comes into play as well. We should not expect of others that which, were we in their place, we would be unwilling or unable to do. Part of being an ethical person is having a well-defined understanding of our personal responsibility to treat other people properly, understanding their weaknesses appropriately, and dealing with conflict constructively.
Of course, one of the best tools in every relationship is the ability to flush the small grievances and forgive the others. Knowing how to give grace, whether it means not being offended by small things, or holding out a forgiving spirit for the big things, will make us better people, and certainly better friends and spouses. And frankly, that is what we ought to expect of ourselves.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.