“My needs aren’t getting listened to,” George told me during a couples counseling session. “I tell Claudette I’d like to spend more time with the guys. On Saturday afternoons, I want to play golf or watch ESPN with my friends. She knows this is important to me, but she gets upset anyway. Why is that?”
I turned to Claudette and asked her to answer. She said she didn’t “get” George’s frustration. “I just don’t understand why it’s so important to him to see his friends every weekend. Don’t you think if two people are happy in a relationship, they should spend their free time together?”
Learning to Express Your Needs
In my book on long-married couples, 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great (Delacourte Press, 2009), I learned that one of the things happy partners have in common is a clear understanding of each other’s expectations, which is a result of communicating well. They don’t need to share the same beliefs about what makes a good marriage to be content, but they do need to have an awareness of what their spouse really wants and needs from the relationship.
If you don’t articulate your expectations, you can’t assume your partner will intuitively know what they are and meet them. This leads to frustration. Claudette, for example, feels that couples should share all their leisure time together. Her parents did that when she was growing up, and her girlfriends’ husbands don’t golf or seem to need the same "me time" as George. So whenever George has time off, she wants him to spend it with her or with the family (their two sons are in college, but only an hour's drive away). By contrast, George believes that in a happy marriage it is important for each spouse to have his or her own hobbies, interests and friends — and free time to pursue them.
The fact that Claudette and George differ in their expectations isn’t their core problem. What causes their unhappiness is that at this new juncture in their life they haven’t shared those viewpoints with each other, and as a result they don’t have a clear way to negotiate a solution.
When our needs and expectations aren’t met, it leads to tension, which mounts and turns into chronic frustration and anger. This eventually eats away at the love and happiness in a relationship.
I told George and Claudette that if they didn’t bring their beliefs about what makes a good marriage out into the open, the resulting disappointment could put their marriage in jeopardy. I asked them to do the following simple exercise.
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Relationship Expectations Exercise
The goal of this activity is to identify and then share your own needs with your partner. This helps you appreciate your differences and build on your similarities. I encourage all couples to do this once a year, because these beliefs often change over time as circumstances evolve.
To begin with, I asked George and Claudette each to write down their top three expectations within the relationship. These statements represent what’s most important for an ideal marriage, such as “I have to feel that my partner would never hurt or deceive me” or “We both need to be ready and willing to compromise when we disagree” or “My partner and I share equally in household chores.”
Next, I had them exchange and discuss their answers. The idea here is to learn what the other hopes for in the marriage — and to discover how important those values are. With this new information, each spouce now knows what the other believes should happen in the marriage. As frustrations arise, there's a context in which to discuss them.
It was no surprise that one of George's top three expectations was “We need to have some private time away from each other.” And for Claudette it was “Leisure time should be enjoyed together.”
This was the first time that instead of just asking for "me time," George explained to Claudette his view of a good relationship —that time alone was important to him and why. This little practice helped Claudette understand that George’s guy time didn’t mean that he was unhappy in their marriage. In fact, he saw it as beneficial. Over several months, Claudette came to accept her husband’s need to pursue his hobbies with the guys, especially since he came home from those sessions energized and happy. She even started taking knitting classes, something she’d always wanted to do, when George went off to “do his thing.”
George got to see Claudette’s perspective — to understand how she might take his need for time apart personally. So in addition to scheduling time with the guys, he began to put couple and family time on the calendar. This signaled to Claudette that their time together was important to him, too.
Understanding each other’s ideas about a relationship is essential to a happy marriage. It enables each partner to tweak his or her behavior to accommodate the other’s core relationship needs, and the result is less frustration and more harmony.