OK, I couldn’t shut up about this anymore (apparently a typical problem that comes with increasing years). I turned on the radio and heard this teaching for the exasperating umpteenth time: “Happy relationships know that you owe everything to your spouse but are owed nothing.” It went on to say that all expectations in marriage are wrong–ALL. By this rationale, if your eyes take a passing glance at what you’re receiving from a partner and it’s less than you expected, you’re automatically in the wrong. So keep your eyes on your own paper. *gigantic eye roll…deep breathing exercises*
No. No no. And no. Please, no more. Stop it, Christian marriage “experts.”
It sounds so loving, sacrificial, noble, altruistic, heroic, savior-like. Right? I really (somewhat) believed it (almost) for a long time, so I’m not trying to be hard on anyone. I just see now why it’s disastrous advice. I grant you that on the surface, it’s a beautiful, idyllic notion. It’s perfect for those of us who like to try to simplify concepts in our overly-complicated minds, stick our heads in the heavenly clouds while still living on messy terra cotta or tend to martyr ourselves when it’s obvious (to everyone else) that it’s stupid to do so.
The problem is—well, there are two biggees I can see right off—it’s also perfect teaching for the person who would take advantage of or use another person without compunction. That leaves the accidental martyrs hanging out to dry with no defenses (supposedly on moral grounds). When you prohibit expectations, you eliminate healthy boundaries.
The biggest problem with it all, this checking your expectations at the door of marriage (like a moviegoer who’s afraid of being let down by a sequel and so drops the bar so low that the worst of cinema can step over it with ease) is that none of any of all of it is Biblical. It sounds close, but just close enough to be dangerous in a decent percentage of marriages. Let’s test it: Jesus came into the world so that standards and expectations for love could be discarded. Does that sentence sound absurd? That’s because it is.
Let me concede what truth and good intention I think radio teacher was attempting. It’s right that no one is owed love. However, that’s why marriage vows are optional in our free society. Walking down the aisle and saying promises out your lips is voluntary. So, check. We’re not claiming an entitlement when we accept another’s promise to love us. (They are claiming an entitlement if they act however they want after that and expect you to stay.)
And no one can expect a spouse’s love to keep them fixed. It’s true that if you expect a partner to do what only the Master and Creator can do for you, again, game over. Filling a void with a person doesn’t work and won’t sustain a healthy and happy relationship.
And radio teacher is right that no one can rightly demand love that looks just so every moment. Selfishness kills a relationship faster than a person can say, “Gimme, gimme, gimme….” If your expectations are for having the final say over green polka dot curtains or eating mushroom and gruyere pizza every Thursday on fine china, your spouse must read your mind at all times, questioning or giving you feedback is off limits and their needs don’t ever enter your self-preoccupied mind, then well, you do need to drop those expectations like the hot potato of destruction that they are.
So giving the benefit of the doubt, I believe what radio teacher is rightly attempting to point out is that being a selfish or improperly dependent spouse will damage the marriage. But, could we not just teach, don’t be selfish or improperly dependent? Do we have to say, it’s wrong to expect anything at all once we’re hitched? (After all, he is kind of telling spouses that they can expect their partners not to have expectations. Tricky what he did there.) Do we have to go so far out of balance? Radio teacher went on to say that any of your wishes, hopes, dreams or ideas for what love looks like should “go in a box and stay there.” Gasp. There are thousands of ways to teach this without saying there’s no such thing as a deal-breaker.
This isn’t off-mainstream teaching in Christian circles in my experience. And essentially, carried to its only logical conclusion, once you exchange vows there’s then no standard by which you can judge the health of the marriage or the rightness of what’s happening in it. And that, my friends, radio teacher said is the key to a happy relationship. (Or a delusional one. And happy for whom? Somebody wanting to exert no effort or to dole out mistreatment unchallenged would certainly do a happy dance.)
Why would we try to disallow the wise and normal act of looking for follow through on things promised? The instruction to turn 100% blind eyes to failure is, at minimum, naïve to the reality that some partners fail badly, miserably in fact, and sometimes in an evil fashion. And those on the receiving end of that extreme failure or evil have been instructed clearly by radio teacher that they have no right to acknowledge or speak of that reality or expect anything different…if they want to be truly happy that is. That’s crazytown.
Nowhere else in real reality, common-sense land and the Bible (the master guide to real reality) do I see this ridiculous notion taught or enforced. It doesn’t even work that way with the greatest sacrifice ever known, made by a perfect God. You’d think the most altruistic, forgiving and heroic gift of all time (Jesus dying for you) would require nothing in return if all this were true. AND YET, God set clear expectations in order to partake in a saving and intimate relationship with Him (belief in Jesus along with authentic humility and genuine repentance). And what a reasonable expectation it is. Otherwise, anyone could make a mockery of a precious offering, and it wouldn’t be precious if it was valued at any less than the price of each human heart.
But, let’s get down to earth. Say you get a loan to buy a car. You’ve entered voluntarily into a relationship with a bank, and they you. They keep up their end and pay the car dealership, so you take the car home. You don’t keep your promise to make the loan payments, so they take the car back after a certain time of default (even if you keep saying sorry but don’t get a job, sorry). We all get this. This is not hard.
We rightly expect many things any time any kind of relationship is formed. Every relationship carries an agreement or exchange of some kind that defines it. Then, strength of character and the implementation of justice require that the parties keep their ends of the deal for the relationship to continue. The one that doesn’t, doesn’t keep the car. It returns to the partner who kept their word.
Isn’t this easy to see in all our everyday situations? We don’t make relationships void of expectations so that they’ll work; we define them by expectations so that they will. The former is called peace at any cost; the latter is called healthy partnership, for both people, reciprocally. Promises are expected to be honored, because once we make them we’ve moved from individuals acting independently to people in relationships who can harm one another. Boundaries are most easily violated by the close knit, so God knew once we’re proximate, interdependent, interactive people we needed accountability to protect one another and ourselves from serious damage, especially in our most intimate relationships.
Marriages are obviously our most intimate and vulnerable relationships in which we make the greatest promises to love and be loved that we ever will. Why exchange vows at all if the relationship can legitimately be whatever the parties willy-nilly decide to make it, ignoring what was said on the big day? Promising to follow through on not being self-centered, outrageous marriage partners is kind of the whole wedding day, isn’t it? By saying it all out loud, we’re in essence giving the other person (and witnesses) explicit permission to notice and call us out if we’re not making good on our words.
Yet some people still say we shouldn’t have expectations—enforce or notice anything—in our precious marriages? They must believe the act of staying married is the only important thing once you’re a married person, and the rest of societal rules or healthy personhood must fall away? For goodness sake, we’re not even allowed to threaten the well-being of a stranger on the street or we’ll get in trouble. But if it happens in a marriage, oops, the recipient is out of luck because nothing is owed and kind treatment can’t be expected? Why on God’s green earth would we demote marriage to a relationship less important than one with a stranger on the street instead of elevating the union based on its promises? We expect logical and clear consequences if one fails what’s expected of them in lesser relationships. If we do it for a car, we can do it for a marriage.
The natural result of all this nonsense is that when there’s no “permission” granted by the “experts” to even notice a spouse’s failure–when vows and the standard they’re supposed to set are thrown away the instant they’re spoken–the mistreated are silenced. And then vows aren’t really vows, are they. We’ve stripped them of meaning if the outcome doesn’t have to at least loosely resemble the outline—if we don’t get to expect to live within basic parameters of the kind of relationship to which we committed. Disappointments will arise, yes. But devastation shouldn’t be accepted without questions, and provisions are made in the Bible for the failure to handle another heart responsibly.
The bottom line is, we give vows no esteem and no power to do their job if behavior in marriage isn’t evaluated based on them, if they don’t set up expectations which carry public and private weight. The act of getting married is for the very purpose of creating standards. And expecting vows to be honored and allowing natural consequences if they’re not is fighting for the sanctity of marriage, not dismissing it.
The trouble with not being on the lookout for whether reasonable expectations are met is that there’s neither the intention nor ability to abide by vows embedded in each person who speaks them. Welcome to life after Adam and Eve. Welcome to reality. The problem in many a destructive marriage is the absence of expectations by a partner for themselves alongside a demand that this absence be overlooked entirely. Imagine how radio teacher reinforces that entitled thinking. Hearing the admonition to drop expectations altogether doesn’t stand a chance of reaching an abuser far off into the ditch of entitlement and self-obsession, statistics and experts say. They don’t self-reflect and change but simply apply the teaching in double standard fashion to their partner saying, See, you’re wrong to expect anything from me. You need to accept that I don’t need to change. Radio teacher has just rolled out the red carpet for continued mistreatment by echoing abusers’ self-established privilege to demand that whatever they do is fine. So this teaching doesn’t magically transform someone who holds no other-serving expectations for their own behavior; it only nooses the one who does. In such cases, it isn’t expectations that killed a relationship but the lack thereof.
An authoritative passage on love is 1 Corinthians 13, but many times I hear it taught as only a command to those trying to love well. Each of us do need that, because God knows the lives of everyone around us are better and safer when we love His way. However, isn’t it also an essential guide to recognize when we’re being loved well, a standard by which to test another person’s words based on their follow through? God knew talk is cheap, and people lie or hide their way to the altar sometimes. He knew we needed a way to assess what is happening other than relying on a person’s words—that way is relying on His Word. I think it’s perfectly fair game to insert your name and then your spouse’s name into this text in place of the word love to examine whether you’re giving love and living at the other end of it or of something else entirely:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Based on what I heard from radio teacher, we’re supposed to say, Yep, love is that. I’ll do that. But when it comes to the other person, nope, scratch that. There’s no standard for what love looks like from you because I’m now married. I can’t even open my eyes and observe whether you’re loving me. I must simply believe you are, whether reality and God’s description of love confirms it or not. If I don’t turn a blind eye to your bad behavior and only look at myself, I’ve sinned (not you’ve sinned, I’ve sinned, for looking at your sin—what??).
No thank you. We need to have recourse if we commit to love and end up in destruction. God doesn’t say, Oh well. Tough luck that you couldn’t read the future. You’re on your own now. God doesn’t simply discard our importance at the altar. He never said it doesn’t matter if we’re loved in a marriage (that we said yes to because someone vowed to do it); we take vows precisely because He said it matters very much. Love is a fair expectation to have, and defining what love looks like by the Word of God is healthy and wise in any situation. Breaches of love and the unhappiness that follows aren’t tragic because of the one acknowledging the severely failed expectations; it’s tragic for them.
Some best attempts at an endeavor simply aren’t good enough for success, and the person pointing them out isn’t the problem. The failed attempts are the problem. When you try out for basketball and make the team, you have to bring basketball skills and effort to the games in order to keep playing. If you don’t, it’s not your team’s fault that you’re on the bench. You don’t get to go out on the basketball court and play lacrosse or pretend the game isn’t in session because you don’t feel like playing. You’ve then let them down. Marriage partners have to be playing the same game and must both be interested in the sport of relationship. I guess radio teacher would have a spouse say, “The lacrosse you’re playing or disinterest you’re showing for our basketball game is good enough.” That doesn’t make it true. God honors truth, and He uses it to set people free. Forgiving another’s shortcomings isn’t the same thing as a head stuck in the sand.
Having said that (this paragraph is ultra important), no one will love perfectly, and during times of crisis they might do it particularly awfully, which is probably also what radio teacher meant: Don’t expect another to be God, perfect or perfectly fulfilling in their ability to love you. Love is patient. Love is kind and forebears those who uncharacteristically lapse or screw up royally but are working toward better in genuine repentance.
But then sometimes, the track record of failing a pledge, playing different games and showing no sustained evidence of authentic remorse and dependable change is so consistent and comprehensive that the car must be repossessed. God Himself issued a divorce decree to his bride Israel at one point, because they failed to keep up their end of the covenant vows. God insists on integrity in promise-making and -keeping. He values grace, yes. He values justice and safety, too. And he never confuses forgiveness with lack of consequences, guaranteed proximity or unconditional, intimate relationship. Neither did Jesus when He came to show us how it’s all done.
In stark contrast, radio teacher said, “Happy relationships know that you are owed nothing.” You are to stay in intimate marital relationship no matter what, essentially. (I’d imagine he believes in one commonly accepted Biblical exception—adultery—although he wouldn’t be able to say so and still teach that ALL expectations are wrong. Hmm.) Many people teach the Bible this way. The misinterpretation of a few verses is convincing at first but astounding once you take a good, long look at the Bible as a whole.
I contend that happy individuals know that they are owed nothing—that entitlement is wrong. You’re not entitled to marriage vows or love from anyone. And if someone can’t or won’t give or keep them, you don’t have a right to force them. You’re only entitled to be released in God-given freedom–to stop pretending that the agreement and promises are intact. Forgiveness only means they don’t owe you what they promised to give anymore, but it doesn’t necessitate letting them endlessly put wear and tear on the car for which they defaulted.
God granted us this freedom with Him, first and foremost. We can turn down or default on our half of our relationship with Him, and He won’t force it. He will love us without conditions, because that depends only on Him. But, He never modeled nor mentioned (nor implied and especially didn’t teach) that close and intimate relationship with Him and all its benefits come without conditions or expectations. It’s very much a two-way street. If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me.
With Hope and Heart in Hand,
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