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One man's take on the silent killer of relationships: unmet expectations.

What's the secret to a winning relationship? This guy thinks he knows.

Right after my wife and I got married, we attended a seminar about aiding the rehabilitation of human trafficking victims.

Image from iStock.

During one of the presenter’s talks, he asked the audience what the biggest cause of divorce was.

Because I had just been through premarital counseling, I pretty much felt like an expert at marriage. I shot my hand up quickly to answer the question and blurted out, “Sex, money, and communication!” Then I looked at my wife next to me and grinned. Too easy.


“Wrong,” the presenter barked back. “Those are symptoms of the real problem.”

Ouch. Not only was I given a sharp lesson in humility, but what followed changed my life. I was about to be told the best piece of marriage advice that this young, prideful, newly married manboy could’ve ever asked for.

“The reason marriages end in divorce is because of one thing," he said, "unmet expectations.”

*mind blown*

Image via iStock.

My newly-married manboy brain couldn’t handle the revelation. I don’t remember much of what was said after that. I was too busy thinking of all the unmet expectations I was experiencing after being married for just a month.

But having unmet expectations isn’t just a marriage problem. It’s a life problem.

Since that seminar six years ago, I have seen the pain and frustration that plays out from having unmet expectations — not just in marriage, but in all relationships. It’s a deadly venom that flows to the heart and wreaks havoc in relationships.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re single, married, working, unemployed, old, young, or [insert demographic here]. Having unmet expectations is lethal to everyone. No one is immune.

So ... what’s the solution?

I’m a math guy. I love equations. I love crunching numbers, and I thoroughly enjoyed algebra and calculus in high school (although I probably couldn’t do a calculus problem to save my life now).

So after lots of searching, I came across an equation for this that helped me understand the whole issue:

EXPECTATION – OBSERVATION = FRUSTRATION

Here’s what that means: Below are two hypothetical versions of one situation played out.

Situation #1: Expectation

Image from iStock.

When I come home from a long day at work, I EXPECT that my partner will have dinner prepared and ready for us, so we can sit down and eat as a family. She’ll be wearing an apron with no food stains on it (because she’s perfect like that) and her hair will be perfectly done up.

Meanwhile, my 16-month-old daughter will sit in her high chair and eat with utensils ... never missing her mouth, which makes cleanup a breeze. After we all finish eating at exactly the same time, we’ll head out into the Colorado sun and go for a nice family stroll, while the butler (you read that right ... butler) cleans up the kitchen and prepares our home for evening activities.

Situation #2: Reality

Really, I come home from work 30 minutes late, and dinner hasn’t even been thought of ... much less started. Because of this, my toddler is screaming her head off, signing, “More! Please! Eat!”

Image from iStock.

When I search for my wife, I find her working on a design project, trying to meet a deadline that’s technically already past due. When I ask what’s for dinner, she glares at me the way only an overworked, overtired, work-from-home parent can glare.

After picking up my toddler, I make my way into the kitchen to find an abundance of no groceries. So, being the manly chef that I am, I set my eyes on cheese and bread. “Grilled cheese!” I exclaim. I put my daughter in her high chair as an influx of rage bursts from within her. I quickly grab the applesauce pouch to appease her. It works ... for now. I get to work on my grilled cheese sandwiches. Everyone eats. The kitchen is left a mess. Toys are scattered throughout the living room just waiting to break someone’s ankle. My wife and I collapse on the couch, avoiding eye contact and avoiding volunteering to clean the kitchen. I could keep going but you get the picture.

Frustration is the difference between these two scenarios.

It's quite an elaborate illustration, I know. But I’m trying to paint the picture of what our expectations can be like versus what life is actually like. Antonio Banderas says it best: “Expectation is the mother of all frustration.”

The fact of the matter is this: In life, we often have expectations that go unmet, and we’re often frustrated because of it. But we don’t HAVE to be.

What can you do? Let your observation take precedence over your expectation.

In other words, go with the flow.

Image from iStock.

Some would say to not have any expectations at all. But I wouldn’t go that far. I think healthy, realistic expectations that are communicated are good to have. They’re something to reach for.

But when you come into a situation and your expectations aren’t met, let your observation take the lead. Discard your expectation in the moment and deal with the reality at hand.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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