Marital discord tied to unmet expectations

By Norman M. Shulman, Ed.D.
November 1, 2008 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Historically in marital therapy, while initial expectations have been an important aspect of treatment its use as a central focus of treatment is less prevalent. Other variables such as work, children, money, sex and extended family can distract the therapist and take the couple on unproductive tangents. This seems to be so because the essential question of what each spouse wants from the other can be easily overlooked. The clinical reality is that most areas of marital discord can be reduced to unmet expectations.

In the 30 or so years I have worked with couples in marital therapy I have come to realize that the satisfaction of mutual expectations is the primary common denominator for conflict resolution. This conclusion could be perceived as a gross oversimplification of the process of marital therapy but please bear with me.

Obviously, other problems can intrude destructively into a marriage but each can be managed and more frequently than not resolved by applying the marital expectation model across the board.

The technique on which I have come to depend is implemented as follows:

In the first session I get each partner to clearly state what they expect of each other as specifically as possible in the areas of the marriage which are in conflict. Once established, with proper guidance, a loving, reasonable couple can usually find common ground and resolve the problem relatively quickly, i.e., within a few sessions. When compromise hits a snag, the therapist, as the “expert” of what a reasonable expectation is, can break the deadlock and offer what a fair compromise should be.

When one or both of the partners is unwilling to compromise, it is usually due to an untreated chemical dependence or other behavioral relationship – damaging addiction or an intractable personality disorder. In these cases, the couple must decide whether or not to address the problems as individuals before proceeding with marital therapy.

Regarding historical and developmental issues, all people bring their personal baggage to a marriage which can adversely affect marital functioning. However, said baggage does not always have to be addressed separately or in the context of treatment to make the marriage work. In the situation where it does, the option of doing so is always there but clinical experience indicates that the past does not always have to be resolved before a couple can advance toward a happy future together.

I have discovered this technique has successfully cut the fat out of much of marital treatment without reducing effectiveness. It is a simple, efficient, easily understandable process which challenges the couple to remain committed by making some mutually agreed upon adjustments. Most couples should be able to make these adjustments and maintain them with self-regulation and respect over time. The majority of times it fails usually indicates an unwillingness or inability to meet their partner’s needs and eventually leads to separation or divorce.

In sum, I posit that marital clarification of and follow through on a couple’s stated specific expectations is a simple, efficient means of effecting marriage–saving change. Establishing treatment guidelines in terms of clarifying marital expectations early in therapy is a necessary first step toward long-term marital conflict resolution.


Norman M. Shulman, Ed.D., is a psychologist in Lubbock, Texas, who performs individual, marital and family therapy with inpatients and outpatients with serious medical problems as well as with the general public. He can be reached by e-mail at:

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