Couples often find themselves bewildered by their partner’s behavior. “Why on earth does he do that?” “Doesn’t she know what she’s doing doesn’t make sense?” “What is he thinking?” “It’s obvious we should be doing this differently.”
Often, the confusion stems from our unrecognized expectations. We may think we’re being rational and clear, but to our partner, we’re not. He or she doesn’t understand why we’re so stuck on x or y, or why we don’t see the sense in doing something a different way, or why some little thing is so annoying.
A lot of that discrepancy can come from patterns in our families of origin that we’re not even aware of. One of my professors* in grad school used to say, “Marriage is like going on a picnic with baskets that were packed by someone else. If one of you has hard-boiled eggs, you can only hope that one of you has salt.”
What got packed in your and your spouse’s marital picnic baskets? What did you learn about marriage from the families you grew up in? What are the things that “of course” couples do, or don’t do, together? Are married couples happy or long-suffering? Are they affectionate or distant? Focused on each other, on the kids, on their job(s) or interests?
What are the “proper” roles of husbands and wives? Note that these may be different from what you consciously believe about desirable roles of men and women and from how you want to live your life. (If you were raised by same-sex parents, your experience of this will likely be different. How did your two moms or two dads divide responsibilities? How did they speak about the non-represented gender [e.g., did your two moms enjoy male friends, or did they think all men are jerks?]?)
Throughout this post, I’m intentionally speaking about “spouses” rather than “significant others.” That’s because these unspoken expectations are more likely to bubble up when people are actually married. (I don’t know why; it just seems to work that way.)
To learn more about what’s in your picnic basket, finish the sentences below. Try not to overthink your answers; just go with whatever thoughts come to you. (Later, share the results with your spouse.)
“Growing up in my family, I learned that married people _____________.”
“In my family, I learned that disagreements should be handled by ___________.”
“I learned that the sex life of married people is/should be _____________.”
“Husbands should _____________.”
“Wives should ______________.”
“Husbands are responsible for _______________.”
“Wives are responsible for _________________.”
“Husbands can’t be trusted to _______________.”
“Wives can’t be trusted to _______________.”
Once you know what’s in your two picnic baskets, you can think about what you want to keep, get rid of, or add to your marriage. If something’s not working for you as a couple, try to let go of it (with professional help, if necessary). If something’s missing, figure out how to get it—by trying something new or practicing communication skills or whatever. Enjoy the picnic!
(*Thanks to the late Dr. Barbara Lynch for all her wisdom and for challenging her students to grow. We will never forget you.)