When I was a high school student there was a large group of us that played a strange card game called “Mau.” This game was unlike any other card game I had played before, because the only way to learn it was to fail at it miserably.
Let me explain. One of the first rules of this game was that you could not ask a question about how to play. If you asked a question, you were penalized with extra cards. You were not told this rule at the beginning, because no rules were discussed before play began. Basically, the way you figured out the rules was to watch what other people did and learn to imitate it. As you can imagine, many of the people invited to play with our group did not make it past their first attempt. The playing field was decidedly uneven… All the rules were unspoken until they were violated.
Marriage can be a lot like Mau. There are often unspoken “rules” that each each individual brings to the table. These are their unique expectations of how families work. Unspoken rules and expectations can emerge from a variety of places, but most often they arise from how we experienced our families as a child. Individual rules may come in the form of gender roles, parenting strategies, you name it. These expectations are not bad–everyone has them–but they have been known to cause many a conflict between loving spouses.
The key, then, is to turn the covert into something overt. When you realize that your expectations are not aligned with your spouse’s, check-in with them about it. Only then will you be able to negotiate how you would like your own nuclear family to function.
Here’s the tricky part–Most of the time we’re unaware that we even have unspoken expectations. After all, if you’ve never known things to be different (e.g., mom always did the grocery shopping, dad always called on his way home, everyone always slept in on Saturdays, etc.) then the natural assumption would be that everyone does it that way, right? That’s just the way things are. As you might have figured out in the first 20 minutes of your relationship, this is decidedly false. There are as many different ways of doing family as, well… as there are families.
Family therapists are usually pretty good at helping you parse out your full genogram, identifying patterns and “family rules” that have always just seemed like the way things are. If you’re having trouble with the unspoken rules and expectations in your relationship, go see one. They’ll help you know what to talk about, because they generally know the right questions to ask to get the ball rolling. You might enjoy it, and you might just transform your marriage through it.