In a recent Science of Mind issue, Michael Gott wrote that an old timer in Alcoholics Anonymous once said that “expectations are resentments in training.” When I think about what couples experience when relationships have moved from the idealizing romantic stage into the working phase, this explains a lot. Happily ever after often presumes seeing and experiencing one another with an eternally rosy glow, in which any “imperfection” is charming or unimportant, like the mole on Scarlett Johansson’s cheek. But happily ever after isn’t, because after has a lot to do with the expectations that haven’t materialized. (Another factor discussed at length in previous blogs is the impact of each individual’s unfinished business being triggered.) Given that most of us aren’t yet enlightened enough to live in the moment with no expectations, how do we keep from being resentful when they don’t materialize?
When Andrew and I talked about committing to a future together 30 years ago, I alternated between joy and fear. I loved him so much that I couldn’t imagine how I would deal with it if he died before I did. He is nearly a decade older, and the thought of losing him was terrifying. Being the hero that he is, he promised to outlive me. When I show any concern today about how hard he still works in his seventies, he reminds me that I don’t have to worry about his being around. Humor continues to be a mainstay of our relationship.
Seriously, though, this illustrates the importance of clarifying which expectations can be promised and which carry no guarantee, despite positive intent. What do we have control over, and what do we need to surrender to the unknowable future? What agreements need to be made? What disappointments are inevitable? What needs to be expressed or simply grieved in order not to build resentment and distrust?
Our sense of safety and security in the world depends on what we think we can count on. Yet we have to accept and live with not having total control or else be in a continual state of anxiety about what might happen. Having lived through some profound losses in my life because the future I expected didn’t materialize, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of surrendering to grief. And, in anticipation of a challenge or unwanted change, to remind myself, as Susan Jeffers wrote, that “no matter what happens, I’ll handle it.”