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iStock_000025315644SmallMost people never clearly define what they expect from an intimate relationship; not to their partner and not even to themselves.

Often, the first time someone asks them to describe their vision of the kind of relationship they want, it’s their therapist doing the asking.

If we talk only about marriage relationships, there was an article in Psychology Today back in 2010 that stated that Americans value marriage more than people do in any other culture. If that’s so, why is the divorce rate in this country so high? One reason might have to do with the expectations we place on marriage, and whether or not those expectations are realistic.

Once upon a time, people married because sex outside marriage was religiously and societally unacceptable, there was no reliable birth control, people needed children to work on the farm and care for them in old age, the estate needed to be left to an appropriate and legally acceptable heir, etc. The belief  that emotional needs should be met within marriage is a relatively modern concept, and having  time to think about the disappointments in that relationship is a luxury born of modern affluence.    After all, who could sit and contemplate their lack of emotional connection when they have to physically labor from dawn to bedtime?

With relative prosperity has come a wide range of choices, including the choice to end a marriage when expectations are not met.

A heightened focus on happiness and fulfillment in intimate relationships has led to an equally heightened focus on problems, and problems get priority processing in our brains.

Most people say that their goal in marrying is to be “happy”, and by happy, they mean that they have consistent passion, interest, romantic love and great sex, and those feelings last for all of a life time! Although most people will say they know that marriages take work, and that relationships have their ups and downs, they don’t really believe that.  In fact, they often cite the fact they they love their mate but are no longer “in love” with them, as the reason they are considering ending their marriage.

If I ask how loving someone differs from being in love with them, they always speak of wishing the relationship still had the fire, passion, intensity of the early days – always wanting to be with this person, having lots of fun, and lots of great sex.

So, if expecting those wonderful feelings to last a lifetime is unrealistic, what expectations are realistic?

Relationship research would point to the idea that satisfaction, connection and desire aren’t just feelings that we experience passively because someone else makes them happen; they develop in direct response to what we do. And, it’s not important just to choose the right partner – you have to be the right partner.

Reasonable expectations of marriage include that each person does the hard work of becoming a more mature person. You won’t find the perfect person and you won’t find the perfect relationship.  But one thing you can have, and can be, is a person whose partner helps them to be the person they want to be!

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