Expected roles of husband and wife:
“I have an idea what my wife should behave like!” “I have an idea how she is supposed to parent!”… Well, the really unfortunate truth is, so does she, and it’s probably different than yours… As a matter of fact, she has those same ideas about your parenting and “husbandry behavior”, and it’s probably different from yours!
A relatively simple explanation for role-related conflict always surfaces when we talk about it in a counseling session… During courtship, we never had to play the roles of husband, wife, or parent. We more than likely talked about our parents, what we liked and disliked… agreed what was good, and agreed what was not so good, and we talked about our expectations of how that might look when we took on those roles ourselves. But, that discussion was bereft of any experience of having to give up, or give in to each other. It is easy to state, “Of course we will discuss it when we need to… and, of course we will respect each other’s opinions… and, of course we will settle differences amicably…” And what we don’t say, but do think is, “Of course, you will recognize that I am right.”
What does this mean?
- When performance does not meet expectations, conflict is often the result. “My expectation was that you would be the kind of husband my father was.”
- She says, “Why don’t you help me more with chores around the house?”
- He says, “My father never did ‘women’s work,’ he always worked out in the yard.”
- He says, “This house is a mess! My mom always kept our home spotless!”
- She says, “Like me, my mom worked outside of the home and could only clean on weekends… do you want me to vacuum, or do you want supper?”
- He tells a misbehaving child, “What you did is not a good thing. Do you understand why Daddy is upset with you? Ok, I want you to go to your room and think about this.”
- She screams at a misbehaving child, “I told you not to ever do that again. Now, go to your room and get ready for your spanking.”
These are minor examples of preconceived notions about how husbands, wives, and parents should perform those roles. The other spouse thinks to themselves, or blurts out vocally, “I can’t believe you would do that!” … “I can’t believe you don’t think like I do about this!” … “Any intelligent person would agree with me on this!”
Preconceived notions about what is proper behavior of our spouse creates expectations. If expectations are not met, someone will be unhappy and try harder to bring them into reality with disapproving behavior. Expectations can change, but they will not go away on their own. They must be dealt with to keep tension at bay, and bring stability back into a disrupted marriage relationship.
OK, so how do we deal with expectations? First, we need to find out what they are and how yours may differ from your wife’s. The only way to accomplish this task effectively is to sit down together and talk about it, using questions like the ones below to guide you. Ask the questions of each other and jot down your pertinent reflections. Do not argue with, or challenge each other’s responses. Just accept them as reality for the one stating them. Try to get a feel for your spouse’s emotional under-pinning of the perceptions they reveal.
For instance, in answer to the question, “What was your relationship to your father like during childhood?”, she might say, “Dad was always “there” for me when I needed him, but he was very austere and demanding when it came to his expectations of me.” Well, which was more powerful in her memory, the fact that he was there, or that he was perhaps hard to please? Which of these impacted her the most? What about your father?
- What is/was Dad like? How did the father role manifest to her as his child? What did it look like to her? Was it different for any siblings?
- What was his role in disciplining the children, and how did he do it? What is her response to his parenting style now?
- How did her mother treat her father? Did she respect him? Did she complain and nag him? How do you think she made him feel?
- Who handled family finances?
- What were taboo roles for Dad… what was taboo for Mom?
- What was the relationship with extended family?
These questions and the others like them will help each of you get a handle on your preconceived ideas of the spouse you wanted and, more importantly, expected when you married; the kind of parent you expected them to be; and also the kind of spouse and parent you did not want them to be. As spouses, you are both more than likely different from how you were expected to be. If your wife expects you to be a different husband or parent than you think you should be, you are in a dilemma and you are going to have to deal with it by discovering what the differences are, and talking with her about the realities of the dilemma.
The first major obstacle for you is to accept the fact of her expectations if they are different from your own. You cannot just claim that she is wrong and her ideas are not valid. You have to respect the fact that her ideas are real to her and deal with it. Her ideas came from many years of observation and interpretation. She had to “make sense” out of the observations, and the interpretation process did that for her. One positive aspect of this problem is that her interpretation occurred through the eyes and brain of a little girl, not that of and adult. The same goes for you. As adults now, the two of you can talk about the validity of those childhood ideas of who and what spouses should look like, and decide on the appropriateness of them in the present.
The question is not, “Which one of us is right?” The facts are that we are a new and distinct family from both of the families we came from, so the question is, “What is the best fit for us?” No one needs to lose, we just need to decide what works best for our new family…
If you don’t talk about it, you will assume (very, very, very bad!) you know and understand your wife’s expectations and be offended when she states otherwise… = CONFLICT!
We will talk more about conflict and how to deal with defensive moves next post… for now, accept the fact of your different expectations and decide to listen to each other with respect…
“That’s an interesting point of view… I’ll think about that and we can talk some more later.”