[This released sooner than I intended. I hadn’t quite finished editing, so it might still have typos that need fixing, and I might change a few things around yet.]
One of the topics that comes up not infrequently in these parts is how messed up most people’s expectations of marriage are. This seems to be the case whether it is a man or a woman being talked about, although the nature of how the expectation is in error might differ between them. What I want to do with this post is explore how those expectations might be “off”, or whether they are really “off” to begin with. Hopefully this post will serve to bring a little clarity to the matter.
Most people (men and women) have unrealistic expectations, about themselves, about what they are worth, about what they should be able to have. And those who know they can’t have what they want will go without. Especially men. I’ve heard a couple of young men actually say that.
What I want to focus on with this comment is not its substance, at least, not yet. Rather, I want to focus on two words.
The first word I want to discuss: unrealistic. Elspeth is not the only one to have used this word when describing marriage expectations. Many commenters and bloggers, male and female alike, have used that word. The problem is that I think it isn’t always used the same way by everyone. I believe that in many instance when people talk about unrealistic expectations, they are adding another word in by implication: unreasonable. What I think is really being claimed is that people have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations. Not all, perhaps, but I suspect it is the case with most. However, I believe it is a mistake to conflate unreasonable and unrealistic together in this manner. They are close in meaning, but not quite the same. To understand why, lets examine what each word means in this context.
Unrealistic would mean that it doesn’t match up to what is likely or possible in the circumstances. Unrealistic expectations, for example, are those expectations which are not founded in reality and will not match up with what comes to pass.
Unreasonable, on the other hand, means that it isn’t appropriate in the circumstances. Unreasonable expectations, for example are expectations which a reasonable person wouldn’t have in those circumstances- he or she would understand that they are simply not appropriate. The why of the appropriateness is another inquiry.
Now, on the face of it, both are pretty similar, and in most circumstances will be effectively indistinguishable. But with a little more digging the problem surfaces.
Let us now move to the second word: expectations. I think in most instances it is used in accord with the dictionary definition. This is how I believe Elspeth uses it. But sometimes people, in the context of marriage and potential spouses, use it when another word, such as requirement, would be more appropriate. In the marriage context, it could be expressed as “I expect any potential spouse of mine to have [criteria X],” which is just another way of of saying “I require that any potential spouse of mine to meet [criteria X].” When people refer to expectations in this sense and mean requirements, things can start to get muddy. The reason why is because while unrealistic expectations and unreasonable expectations are fairly similar most of the time, if not the same, the same cannot be said of unrealistic requirements and unreasonable requirements. This is because unrealistic requirements are not necessarily unreasonable requirements when it comes to a potential spouse.
In the present environment, many reasonable requirements which someone can have for a potential spouse might be simply unrealistic. Whether it be on matters of chastity, adherence to biblical roles or something else, your requirement might be quite reasonable to have… but there might not be any candidates available who meet that criteria.
It should also be noted that what is reasonable is context specific. It will vary, somewhat, from one person to the next. One’s station in life will matter. But it should be possible for those evaluating someone in that station to agree upon what is reasonable or not, and whether he or she is setting up requirements which match this.
There are a few points I want to make with what I’ve explained so far.
The first is that it behooves us to be as clear and precise as possible when using some of these terms. The substance of our arguments or any points we make can shift dramatically depending on whether we are using a word one way or the other. I started a post containing definitions of words and phrases that I use outside the norm because I want to avoid confusing people. As someone who is rather slapdash with his words, I realize that I am in no position to preach to anyone here, but I do think that it valuable to the overall discussion if we are careful in our word choice.
Second, I want to defend those with reasonable but perhaps unrealistic requirements. I think that everyone, man and woman alike, has the right to set a certain baseline level of what they should be able to require (or expect) from a potential spouse. This is especially the case among Christians, and that context will guide the rest of this. In fact, I would go so far as to say there is a duty to have a certain baseline standard in a spouse, if only for the sake of any children of the marriage. After all, they deserve the best possible mother/father.
Here are some, in my view, reasonable requirements that Christians can have about a potential spouse. It is reasonable for a chaste Christian man to require any potential wife to be chaste (and always have been). It is reasonable for him to require that any potential wife conform to Traditional/Scriptural Christian teaching on the role of husband and wife. A Christian woman with a clean record can reasonably require that any potential husband not have a criminal record. It is reasonable to require that he be a hard worker and willing to provide for his family. And so on and so forth.
Now, in some circumstances it might not be realistic for a man to require chastity of a potential spouse, because most of the candidates simply won’t be able to meet that requirement. The same might apply to a woman. But that doesn’t change the reasonableness of that requirement. It is the nature of the thing required, and your life history and present station in life, which determines what is reasonable to require of a potential spouse. Keep in mind also that what is reasonable for women might not be reasonable for men, and vice versa.
Of course, the corollary to all of this is that I don’t, and won’t, defend those with unreasonable expectations/requirements. The different posts that I have written which have taken apart various “lists” have been attacks on unreasonable requirements in a future spouse. It is when people have unreasonable and unrealistic requirements that real problems develop.
Much of the reason why I want to defend reasonable requirements, whether or not they are realistic, is because for a long time many Christians, especially men, had unreasonable requirements. Yet at the same time those requirements were also realistic. Lest you think me crazy or contradicting myself, let me explain. They were unreasonable because they were too accommodating– they accepted spouses whom they should have rejected. There are two potential “fields” of unreasonableness- holding too high a standard, which for the circumstances is folly, and holding too low a standard, which is also folly. And for a long time here in the West too low of a standard was accepted, especially by men. Without any need to meet reasonable requirements, many Christians had no incentive to act reasonably. So they ended up acting unreasonably, and wouldn’t have met the standards of anyone with reasonable requirements/expectations. The end result has been a slow and steady decline in the Church.
Alas, I’m not sure that if Christians start to have reasonable requirements it will turn things around. Incentives do matter, but things have gone so far astray that such steps might not be enough any longer. When many “Christians” act like this, you can get a real feel for the depth of the rot. But it would be nice if it could make a difference. Although the cost will be high, because reasonable standards and requirements will also be unrealistic requirements for many. It would mean that a large number of Christians will not be able to marry in the current environment. That is a lot to ask of many, I know. But ultimately I think it is for everyone’s benefit. Especially since many an observer has remarked that no marriage is far better than a bad marriage. And it isn’t like I’m asking (or suggesting) anyone to do something I wouldn’t- because I’ve made that choice for myself, for better and for worse.
In summary, there is a difference between unreasonable and unrealistic requirements. The latter is, in my view, defensible if paired with reasonable requirements, but the former is not.