Back in the days of Jane Austen’s time, matrimony was more often like a financial transaction where people married to achieve social status, economic stability, and safety. (Check out these 11 fascinating wedding traditions from around the world.) But modern-day marriage has evolved into what some psychology researchers dub as the “self-expressive era,” a time where we expect our partners to not only meet our basic needs of everlasting love and sense of belonging, but also help support us on our journey to self-discovery and fulfillment.
The good news is that research shows a growing association between relationship quality and personal well-being, which means people are now expecting more from their relationships than ever before. In some cases, high standards can lead to a more happy, healthy marriage, but if those expectations are nearly impossible to meet due to conflicting work schedules, time spent parenting, or stress from everyday life, those unrealistic standards can cause the relationship to suffer. (Want a happier marriage? Say these 12 magic phrases to your spouse every day.)
This relationship dynamic is called the “suffocation model of marriage” where couples want more from their relationships, but also have less time and energy to nurture and meet those expectations. “Marriage satisfaction goes down when expectations don’t fit reality,” James McNulty, PhD, researcher and psychologist at Florida State University told WebMD. “For some couples, that means lowering expectations, and for others, raising them.”
In a recent study conducted by McNulty, he tracked the relationships of 135 newlywed couples from Tennessee for four years. Each couple answered surveys that measured their marital expectations and their level of satisfaction. The couples who reported less severe problems and lower levels of destructive behavior with their spouses were more likely to meet their expectations of wedded bliss over time compared to the couples who reported more severe problems and higher levels of destructive behavior from their spouses.
Another key factor in meeting these high expectations was how couples fought. Spouses who directly addressed their marital issues and explained to each other how to fix the problem were happier and more likely to feel like their marriage met their expectations. But couples who resorted to sarcastic remarks or hostile behavior in the heat of conflict were less likely to feel like their marriage measured up. (Steal a few tricks from these couples who know how to fight fair.)
The takeaway here is that high standards can enhance your relationship, but only if you and your partner can feasibly meet them and effectively communicate your issues. If not, it may be time to take a step back and re-evaluate the unrealistic demands of your marriage.
McNulty suggests using open communication or seeking out a relationship counselor to help you work through your issues. (Watch out for the 11 silent signs you may need a marriage counselor.) If the problems can’t be resolved, “you can understand, realize, and accept that you will not be able to achieve all the benefits you have been demanding out of marriage,” he told NPR. Other experts recommend leaning onto loved ones outside of the relationship to help promote your need for self-fulfillment like asking your friend to read your cover letter for your dream job instead of your spouse. This tactic will take some of the pressure off your partner and lead to a more enjoyable relationship.
“When you put your partner on a pedestal and think he or she is perfect, that’s fine if your partner can accomplish that. But most can’t, so there’s disappointment,” McNulty tells WebMD. “It really comes down to trying to notice the impact that external things have on your spouse’s behavior, understanding the ups and downs of life—and to some extent, being able to predict them.” (Start taking notes! These happily married couples share their best advice for happily ever after.)