Last weekend I took part in a Portland rite of passage: Hood to Coast, a nearly 200-mile relay race from Mt. Hood to the town of Seaside on the Oregon coast. Constantino enjoys running about as much as a cat enjoys baths, but he volunteered to drive one of our vans so that he could be a part of the fun as well. We both thought it would be a great shared experience, and we were right: It was the highlight of our summer. But we went into the weekend with slightly different expectations, and it soon began to show.
During our premarital counseling sessions, I remember our pastor warning us about differing expectations, and how a failure to communicate them is one of the most common forms of conflict. As an introvert and internal thinker, expressing my expectations is one of the most challenging aspects of relationship. I often think through a problem or an idea so long and so thoroughly that it genuinely feels as if I have communicated it to someone else. When I finally do express myself, I'm shocked to find that others aren't caught up. On more than one occasion I've surprised my family with big decisions that, to them, seem to have come out of nowhere. It's a poor way to do relationship—it's like building a home with my husband when the blueprint is only in my mind. If we’re not communicating well, it can be easy for me to be working head-down on my Victorian home only to look up and see that my husband is building a mid-century modern.
During the relay race, for example, Constantino had a vision of being a support to me: bringing me water, massaging my cramped legs, offering encouragement. But I had no expectation of such help. I’ve competed in numerous athletic events as an adult and have grown accustomed to caring for myself. To me, help is something I ask for when I’ve literally lost the capacity to do it myself (i.e. broken, bleeding, dead). We never talked in advance about our visions for the weekend. And although we had an awesome time with great friends, the discrepancy in our expectations caused a faint disconnect that we had trouble identifying until we had a chance to talk it through after the race was over.
Part of it, too, was exacerbated by the ease with which our other married friends interacted. The two couples in our van—wonderful people we both love and respect—practiced a rhythm that we have yet to master. They knew what the other person needed before asking, and communicated in subtle ways only they understood. But both of these couples have years of experience together. Constantino and I are less than four months into our journey of marriage, and we can’t expect to build the house that is our relationship in a day. We can’t expect to be hanging artwork when we’re still framing the walls.
Another friend of ours told a great story about the first few months of his marriage. His custom after dinner was to do chores—laundry, vacuuming, organizing, and general tidying up. But for his husband, the time after dinner had always been reserved for rest and relaxation. It took a building resentment toward his husband for them to finally have a conversation. His husband wasn’t lazy, and he wasn’t a neurotic clean freak; they simply had different expectations of how they were supposed to be spending their evenings.
Constantino and I are learning to be more intentional about communicating our wants and expectations. Before the race started, I would have liked to know that Constantino was hoping to play an active, personal role in my running; in turn, I needed to convey to him my habit of single-minded focus when I’m in “the zone.”
Mismatched expectations are like pieces of uneven cement on a sidewalk—the further apart they are, the more likely we are to trip up. Fortunately, Constantino is a great at initiating conversation when he senses a disconnect, and we’re both committed to good communication. But it’s a big house we’re building, and we just have to take it nail by nail.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.
Illustration courtesy Hood to Coast Relay.
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