A good deal of the pain we feel in our day to day lives comes from unmet expectations. As an example, if my husband doesn’t put his dirty clothes in the hamper I become upset, but only because I expect him to put them in the hamper. If I didn’t it wouldn’t upset me. The same is true, for example, of my parents: they feel a great deal of pain today because I didn’t live up to their expectations as an adult daughter. If they hadn’t expected me to submit to my father, they would not have been upset when I didn’t. Have you ever heard the phrase “unmet expectations lead to frustration?” Well, it’s true.
I had a really interesting conversation with one of my husband’s cousins recently. She grew up in a liberal agnostic family, and is today a career woman with a high power job, a successful husband, and a young child. We talked about relationships and my background, and I asked her a few questions. It turns out, like I expected, that she doesn’t feel at all upset by the fact that her husband dated other women before her, or by the fact that he had sex with other women before her. Similarly, he is not upset by the fact that she dated around and had sex before he met her. In fact, they are today still good friends with several of their exes, and in fact, friends with each other’s exes.
When I first started dating the man who is now my husband, I was horrified by the fact that he had dated other women before me, and been physically intimate with them. I felt angry, angry at him and angry at those other girls. I knew one of them – she lived in my dorm – and I have to say I almost hated her. I felt that she had taken something from me, something precious, simply by dating my husband. He had given away a piece of his heart, I believed, and now the heart he would give me was incomplete. We could never have the best, all because he had dated before.
So what explains the difference? Expectations. My cousin never expected that she would be her husbands’ first. When she wasn’t, it was old hat. I in contrast expected to be my husband’s first. When I wasn’t, I felt incredible pain and hurt.
The thing I most regret about that early time was what I did to my wonderful boyfriend because of this. Reader, I am far from perfect. I made sure my boyfriend knew that he had hurt me by dating and being intimate with others before me, and I worked hard to make sure he felt the proper amount of remorse. And he did, but only because he could see that he had hurt me, not because he actually thought he had been wrong in what he had done.
He told me that the pain I felt was based not on actual harm but rather on unmet expectations. He told me that he loved me, and that those past relationships did not weaken his love for me. For a long time, I didn’t believe him. I said a lot of awful things to him, things that I regret. I think it just took a while to sink in that he was right.
Weirdly, my now husband told me that he wished I had dated before. He even wished that I wasn’t a virgin. This completely threw me. Wasn’t he supposed to be thrilled that he was my first? Wasn’t my intact heart (and hymen) supposed to be some sort of present for him, some sort of gift? But he was serious. He really truly wished I had had previous boyfriends, and in fact he told me that not only would he not have cared if I had had sex before, but in fact he actually wished I’d had.
I was so confused. I had saved myself for him – wasn’t that supposed to mean something? The reality is that it would have meant something if he had been a fundamentalist or evangelical boy raised to expect sexual purity and emotional purity. But he wasn’t, so it didn’t.
Today, my expectations have shifted so completely that I feel no pain at all from the fact that my husband had previous relationships. In fact, I am now good friends with one of my husband’s exes, and I feel no ill will toward her at all.
As I look back on the past, I can see that the pain was real. I can see also that the that pain my husband felt for having caused me pain was real. But I also can see that the entire cause of the pain was not real harm or damage, but rather the expectations that had been ingrained in me. Those expectations caused both of us an incredible amount of completely unnecessary pain. And I hate that.
In marriages where both parties are raised expecting to be each other’s first and they actually are, this pain of unmet expectations will not be felt. Similarly, in marriages where both parties are raised expecting that the other will have dated before they meet, this pain will not exist. The problem occurs in marriages where one partner was raised with one set of expectations and the other with another. In some ways it’s like talking in different languages: the one partner says “don’t you see how much you hurt me?” and the other says “what are you talking about?” The problem is not actual harm, it is mismatched expectations.
I am raising my daughter to expect that her future spouse will have dated before he meets her, and that she will date beforehand too. I hope to protect my daughter from the pain that I felt, but I realize that may not be possible. After all, if she grows up to marry someone who was raised to expect that he would be his spouse’s first, that someone will feel pain and anger over which she will have no control. Her relationship too will be damaged by mismatched expectations, damage that will persist as long as the expectations remain mismatched. And I hate that this is a possibility.
My conversation with my husband’s cousin only confirmed for me something that I had already come to believe. There is no inherent pain that results from having other relationships before marriage or even from having had sex with others before marriage. None. The pain comes only and entirely from unmet expectations. That is why I felt pain that my husband had dated and been intimate before meeting me while my husband’s cousin had absolutely no problem with the fact that her husband had dated and been intimate before meeting her (in fact she would have found it odd if she had been his first). And I find this fascinating.