Candlelight, roses and chocolate. Many dating or married couples build up Valentine's Day and have sometimes unrealistic expectations for a romantic holiday.
Husbands and wives can fall into the same trap with marriage itself.
Many years ago, at a family meeting that included all my immediate family and our spouses, my dad said these exact words: "I'm taking you on a vacation to paradise. The exchange rate is so good right now that you can eat steak and lobster every night."
He passed around brochures for Rosarito, Mexico, replete with stunning views of the ocean and highlighting a full range of activities. The one that caught my wife Terrie's and my attention was horseback riding. The picture showed a lady with long, flowing hair galloping across the beach on a beautiful horse. We determined right then that horseback riding was the activity for us, and we eagerly planned and packed for this vacation.
Let's just say Rosarito was not what we had anticipated. First, our hotel was not the one in the brochure. It wasn't even in the same neighborhood. Second, although the exchange rate was good, the prices were set for tourists. No steak and lobster for us.
One day on this trip, we saw a burro with white zebra stripes painted on it harnessed to a wooden cart. There was a sign that said, "Color pictures $5." Our daughter was a baby at the time, and we decided it would be fun to have a family picture on a cart behind the zebra-burro. I paid, we got in the cart, and all smiled for the picture. The man who owned the burro developed the picture right there and gave it to us—a black and white print.
"But I thought this was supposed to be a color picture," I said.
"Sí, Señor, it is color—black and white."
This trip wasn't turning out to be quite what we envisioned. We balanced our disappointment, however, by reminding ourselves that at least we could go horseback riding on the beach.
We left bright and early the next morning with visions of ourselves brilliantly printed in our minds, galloping across the beach on princely horses. When we arrived at the place advertised for horse rentals, we found a limited selection of horses—two. Terrie's horse had only one eye. My horse was well past his retirement years and had to be led. To make matters worse, we couldn't seem to get the boy leading it to understand we wanted to go to the beach. He led us through the streets where his friends surrounded us, asking for money.
When we finally got back to our hotel, we looked again at the picture of the lady galloping across the beach. Apparently, that horse had already been rented by the time we arrived.
We are wiser now to travel brochures. A photographer can capture a small snapshot that is wildly different from the full experience.
And so it is in marriage. We see snapshots of marriage in other people's lives, on social media and in culture. From these, we build our own expectations. But we soon discover that our mental images are vastly different from reality.
Expectations and misunderstandings can set couples up for an ongoing stream of disappointment. In offering marriage counseling, Terrie and I almost always find that marital disappointment comes from unrealistic, and often unspoken, expectations spouses have of one another.
We see unmet expectations throughout the Bible. Sometimes they were false expectations of God and sometimes unrealistic expectations of others. A powerful account of misplaced expectations is in 2 Kings 5 where we find the Syrian captain, Naaman, going to the prophet Elisha to be healed of leprosy. Naaman arrived at Elisha's doorstep with a large entourage, but Elisha simply sent his servant to the door with instructions for Naaman to dip seven times into the muddy Jordan River. Naaman was offended, and he left Elisha's house "in a rage"—a classic indicator of unmet expectations.
Naaman came to Elisha with a full set of unspoken expectations. He expected Elisha would come to him in person, perform an elaborate ceremony and bring on-the-spot healing. When this didn't happen, Naaman's disappointment turned into anger. It was only the persuasion of Naaman's servants that brought Naaman around to the place where he was willing to let his expectations go and humbly do as the prophet had told him. (And just to not leave you hanging, Naaman did then experience the miraculous healing of God.)
But think about Naaman's initial response: "Behold, I thought...." When you hear yourself say, "But I just thought..." that's your clue that you're dealing with unmet expectations. And when you feel the frustration and anger rising, that is another indication that you are responding to unmet expectations.
If you remain married for longer than five minutes, you will experience unmet expectations. It's part of life, and it's definitely part of marriage.
The world conditions us to believe that love is fueled by a spouse being "everything I ever dreamed." When we discover our spouse is not everything we dreamed (and no spouse is), we have two choices: we can become disillusioned, or we can choose to love unconditionally and serve sacrificially.
The feeling of being "in love" comes easily when all my expectations are being met. But true love—selfless love—requires the hard work of discovering what my spouse needs, selflessly serving him or her, and having the personal discipline and commitment to do that again and again and again. This is the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13—the famous "chapter of love" in the Bible.
And this kind of sacrificial love allows you to look back at the self-centered picture you originally had of marriage and laugh. Marriage isn't a ready-made photograph. It is a picture you paint together—day by day, choice by choice, with brushstrokes of love and service.
Dr. Paul Chappell is the pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church and the president of West Coast Baptist College in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulChappell. He and his wife, Terrie, have written the new book titled 'Are We There Yet?: Marriage—A Perfect Journey for Imperfect Couples.')