(Part two of a two-part series on modern marriage)

Do we have realistic expectations about marriage? Probably not…

In part one, you read a historical overview of the evolution of marriage from an “arrangement” built on economic and political security, patrimony, and lineage to a “promise” of mutual fulfillment–emotional, spiritual, and sexual.

Yet, we still long for the old-fashioned marriage ideals of safety, security, dependability, and familiarity. And now we also expect the new marriage ideals of ever-present passion, authentic intimacy, equality, and self expression.

The Dilemma of Modern Marriage

We want it all, the best of both worlds–security and passion, familiarity and novelty, consistency and spontaneity, dependency and autonomy.

These contradictory ideals create what I call the dilemma of Modern Marriage. Modern Marriage has become more “me” focused and self-seeking. Our new entitlement leaves us disillusioned when we don’t feel like our needs are being met.

We’re ready for the institution of modern marriage to evolve again. But we haven’t figured out what the next step looks like.

How should we approach modern marriage and our partners in the meantime?

What internal shifts do we need to get ourselves to the next iteration?

It turns out that the answer is right under our noses! It’s the thing that we instinctively turn away from because of its awful stench.

That’s right. I’m talking about the D word: disillusionment.

Let’s face it, for most of us, our expectations of modern marriage and the reality of modern marriage are not even close.

When it comes to loving our partners, disillusionment is inevitable. I mean real love, not puppy love, not honeymoon-giggles, new-relationship-energy kind of love, not sugar-coated, Hollywood romance, but the love that comes with seeing who your partner actually is.

When we truly see our partners for all of who they are, we don’t usually love ALL of what we see, do we?

Parts of what we see in our partner can be horribly confronting. These parts challenge us to very core of who we are.

Take Tamara* and Josh* for example.

Where We Get Stuck in Love

Tamara fell for Josh because he was noticeably different from the men she’d gone for in the past.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt unconditionally loved and chosen the way I do with Josh,” she said. “I’m just starting to trust that his feelings for me are real – that I don’t have to be anything more for him that who I am.”

This was revolutionary for Tamara who was from a family culture where she was taught to believe that she could always be “better” — better looking, higher achieving, greater earning.

As first-generation immigrants, this drive had served her parents well by helping them achieve the American Dream. They came to the states with very little, and over the course of many years, amassed enough wealth to offer their children the privileges of upper-class life.

The drive to improve was the air she breathed. Striving for more was her way to earn love. Yet, despite her undeniable success, she perpetually felt “not enough.”

Josh’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different. Although he also came from an immigrant family and boasted an Ivy League degree, he was raised in a humble, middle-class family, where thrift, service, and generosity were prized over the accumulation of wealth and success.

Despite earning a comfortable salary at a reputable financial firm, Josh’s sensibilities were more modest and his social graces less refined. But this in no way reflected an inner sense of poverty. Quite the opposite. Josh was perfectly comfortable being himself.

When Tamara returned from her first trip to meet Josh’s parents, she was absolutely distraught.

“He’s a golden boy in their eyes,” she said. “I don’t understand. They rarely push him and constantly praise him for the smallest things. How can I be with someone who is just so okay with with…well..not wanting more for himself?”

Josh offered Tamara a taste of something she was both ravenous for and disgusted by – a feeling of contentment and being enough. She savored the way he gave her the unconditional love she’d never had before. But his seeming lack of desire for better things turned her stomach sour.

“I’m scared that I’ll resent him for not wanting to make more money or live in a nicer house,” Tamara said. “I don’t want to be the one to always offer to pay more because I want to stay at fancier hotel. Why does he want to be with me anyway? I’m nothing like his mother.”

But in the next breath, she stated: “But I could never leave him. We actually get along so well. There’s a young playful part of me that comes out with him that I don’t share with most people. I feel safe with him. I want this to work out.”

The conflict Tamara felt between these two parts of herself was intensely disconcerting. This was the kind of love she had been seeking. Yet being with Josh confronted her most deeply ingrained core beliefs and personal identity.

To completely relax into this partnership and have the marriage she wanted, she’d have to get over herself.

How Disillusionment Helps Evolve Our Partnerships and Ourselves

Disillusionment is a powerful tool for awakening to a deeper kind of love and partnership, one that asks us to stop trying to change our partner and start re-defining who we think we are.

It sounds so simple. Why is it so damn hard?

The reason: This big evolutionary kind of love is deeply threatening to our sense of self, our conditioned identities, and personal narratives about how to behave to be loved and valued.

We must release the ego’s power struggle with reality and come to terms with the vulnerability and helplessness revealed when we confront disillusionment.

In Journey of the Heart: The Path of Conscious Love, John Welwood writes,

“In promoting expectations of unending bliss and security, the dream of love sets us up for shock and disillusionment when we come down to earth and encounter the pain and difficulty involved in creating a satisfying relationship. When these expectations are not fulfilled, it is easy to become bitter and discouraged, with oneself, with the opposite sex, or with love itself.

Yet at those times when relationships fail to live up to our high flying dreams and we fall to earth with a jolt, life may actually be giving us a gift–by trying to wake us up. Disillusionment–the recognition that reality does not match our fantasies–is an inevitable and important part of love’s path. By bringing us into alignment with the way things are, it can open our eyes to the truth of our situation and help us move in more healthy positive directions.”

Welwood suggests that rather than accepting that sinking feeling in our stomach simply means something is wrong, we use those feelings for something more worthwhile.

Instead of seeing your relationship as an endpoint, a place to hide away, resisting change and ultimately, denying your true self, think of your relationship as a path. Only when we see love as a path to growth, not as an escape, will we begin to evolve the idea of modern marriage and in the process, evolve ourselves.

As Welwood writes: “Opening to the grief of disappointment and loss, and letting ourselves go through it, allows old dysfunctional structures to dissolve and new wisdom to enter.”

Yes, the process will be painful, just as bone growth causes aches and pains in the body. But growth and pain are natural and inevitable.

The good news is you can get through it and even make the process smoother for yourself. How? By setting expectations based on reality.

How to Build Realistic Expectations for Modern Marriage

A quick note: I encourage both partners to do this work. You can begin separately, if that feels more comfortable, but you must come together to make sure your expectations are compatible.

The first step to setting realistic expectations is to start where you are. By unearthing and acknowledging your expectations, you can bring them to light for examination.

Remember, you won’t be able to set realistic expectations, if you’re not honest about your current thoughts. Be open and uncensored. No judgment here. We all have unrealistic expectations.

Question 1: What are my expectations for love, partnership, and marriage?

Now that your expectations are out in the open, it’s time to question your conventional ideas about what love is.

Each of your beliefs about love and marriage has a root. The idea is to trace the belief back to its root. Often our notions have little to do with love and more to do with how our partners are a reflection/extension of ourselves, rather than a separate person with their own sets of beliefs, needs, and wants.

When they reflect good things about us, we love them, and when they reflect bad things, we push them away.

Question 2: What are the origins of my beliefs about love and marriage?

Next, you’re going to dig into those beliefs, stories, and strategies you cling to, in order to feel lovable.

We all have parts of ourselves we’ve denounced because we think these parts aren’t lovable. As a result, we often project these parts onto our partner.

Taking responsibility for the disowned part of yourself helps you dig into who you really are without your conditioned tendencies.

Question 3: What do I think I must do to be loved? Is this true?

You’ve done a lot of work at this point. Take a deep breath. The final step in setting realistic expectations is acceptance and surrender.

Be willing to let go of the idea of the perfect mate, or perfect love, or perfect self. Instead, be present with who you are, who your lover is, and what you created together, as it is right now.

By releasing false expectations, we allow ourselves to fall in love with things as they are and to embrace all as the divine manifestation of a mystery we can never understand.

Considering marriage? Couples therapy is an incredible tool for doing premarital work in a safe, supportive environment. 

*Not actual clients or client names.