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The problem with rising expectations

Shulman, in an article called ‘Great Expectations’ argues that today, unlike the old days, people ‘want it all’ (1). They want a soul-mate, a great looking partner, a partner who adores them, loves all their short-comings and fulfils all other wishes and desires. The truth is that such partners don’t exist. In fact, I doubt many married couples will honestly claim to have such partners. It may be the case that, the excitement of the first days, is mistaken for a perfect relationship. This is why, for most people, the early days are perceived as the happiest days.

What most people fail to realise is that, during courtship, both partners are under constant pressure to impress each other. Compromise is thus a foreign term during this period. Thus, once couples relax and stop trying to impress their partners, there is a risk that this could be perceived as the end of love. This period could alternatively, be considered as a transition phase, marking the end of the honeymoon bliss and the beginning of the actual marriage. However, not so many couples realise this, instead, the end of the courtship bliss, is usually perceived as a sign that a marriage is failing.

Why is this the case?

Modern society, particularly the media, tells us that ‘having it all’ in a basic human right. Thus settling for second best is not an option for those searching for maximum happiness. The constant pressure to experience maximum happiness in everything we do, could be the reason why, even the slightest uncertainty, is enough to send us in a state of panic. This has created what Terrence Real, a psychotherapist, calls ‘stable ambiguity’ (2). This term describes a state in which one is always on the look-out for the so-called perfect partner or soul mate. This means that very little or no effort is devoted towards improving one’s current relationship. How then can we ensure happiness in an institution which is considered as a ‘compromising entity’? In other words, how can we make the most from marriage?

Some researchers have suggested that happier and stronger lasting marriages are built on more than just the affection that couples have for one another. Researchers supporting this argument propose that modern marriages tend to be more unstable, because they are solely founded on love (3). Love, like many human emotions, goes through high and low phases. This is certainly true for nearly all people in romantic relations. When this affection fades, people often divorce or separate, unless they have reasons to stay together, such as children, religious views or the belief that separation is wrong. There is no denying that love is important for any romantic relationship. But it may be beneficial for married couples to explore other aspects of marriage, besides the affection they have for one another.  That way, they will put less emphasis on affection.

Another factor that may contribute to marital satisfaction is having less, and more realistic expectations (4). Unrealistic expectations, such as marriage being an end to loneliness and a perfect relationship devoid of argument, will only lead to disappointments. People holding these expectations believe that when they run in difficulties, their marriage is a failure. If this feeling persists and no efforts are made to address it, the marriage will eventually breakdown. This can be avoided if both partners are willing to seek help or work harder at improving their marital situation.


(1) Shulman, P. (2004). Great Expectations: The Soul Mate Quest. Retrieved 2009-06-19, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articals/200403/great-expectations-the-soul-mate-quest.

(2) Shulman, P. (2004). Great Expectations: The Soul Mate Quest. Retrieved 2009-06-19, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articals/200403/great-expectations-the-soul-mate-quest.

(3) Kahneman, D., Diener, E., and Schwarz, N. (1999). Well-being: The foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

(4) Trump, E. (2009). Myths in Marriage: Dissatisfaction Caused by Unmet Expectations. Retrieved 2009-06-02, from

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