Message Tab

Unrealistically high expectations threaten new marriages


QUESTION: My son and his girlfriend have been talking about getting engaged, but he’s worried about the high divorce rate that threatens every new marriage, and asked me how he could lower the risk. What advice would you have given?

DR. DOBSON: The answer to that question could go six hundred different ways, but I’ll be content to offer just one suggestion. You need to explain to your son how women are different from men and how that uniqueness will affect his own marriage. It concerns what might be called “differing assumptions.”

Many men come into marriage laboring under the mistaken idea that their wives are going to be their cheerleaders, who will take care of the children and expect nothing in return. They believe that their greatest and perhaps only responsibility is to make money and to succeed professionally, even if it requires twelve hours a day to do it.

The assumption of women, on the other hand, is that their marriage will be a wonderfully romantic affair. They anticipate candlelit dinners and walks in the rain and evenings of soul-to-soul conversations.

Both of these expectations are illusions that bump along for a few years until they finally collide. Workaholic men and Cinderella women often destroy each other.

I saw this pattern develop repeatedly with medical students who began their training with such enthusiasm that was shared by their spouse. But by the third year, the wife (assuming the student was a man) began to realize that her husband had a mistress. It was not another woman. He was in a lifelong love affair with medicine, and he would be captivated by that obsession for the rest of their lives together. When that reality sank in, divorce was not far behind, usually in the senior year.

I strongly urge fathers to tell their adolescent and college-age boys that girls are incurable romantics and that it will not be enough for them as husbands to be successful in their professional pursuits. That would have been sufficient in decades past. Today, something more is expected. If they are going to have strong marriages and families, they must reserve time and energy for the marital relationship, talking together and treating each other as sweethearts.

This is the one word of advice that I would like to give to every engaged or newly married couple. A simple understanding of these “differing assumptions” could prevent many painful divorces. I think you should share it with your son.

QUESTION: It has always been my understanding that marriage was supposed to be based on unconditional love. That is, the commitment to one another should be independent of behavior, no matter how offensive or unfaithful. But your concept of accountability seems to be, “I will love you as long as you do what I want.”

DR. DOBSON: You’ve misunderstood my point. The limitations of language make it very difficult to express this concept adequately, but let me try. I certainly believe in the validity of unconditional love, and in fact, the mutual accountability I have recommended is an expression of that love!

For example, if a husband or wife is behaving in ways that will harm himself, his children, his marriage, and the family of the “other woman,” then confrontation with him becomes an act of love. The easiest response by the innocent partner would be to look the other way and pretend she doesn’t notice. But from my perspective, that is tantamount to a parent’s refusing to confront a fourteen-year-old who comes home drunk at 4 a.m. That mother or father has an obligation to create a crisis in response to destructive behavior. Love demands that they do that!

I’m trying to say that unconditional love is not synonymous with permissiveness, passivity, weakness, and appeasement. Sometimes it requires toughness, discipline, and accountability.

Dr. Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995( Questions and answers are excerpted from “Solid Answers” and “Bringing Up Boys,” both published by Tyndale House. COPYRIGHT 2009 JAMES DOBSON INC.