Photo: Joel Stans/Exposure NY
Alison A. Armstrong, the author of The Queen's Code, has helped millions of women and men learn to communicate better. Here, the couples coach kicks off our six-part Marriage Bootcamp series, which will focus on prepping you for the next phase of your life. To start, Armstrong explains why we expect the relationship to be perfect after a guy proposes, and how you can avoid that trap.
Brooke and Lee, both in their mid-thirties, had lived together in New York City for a year. She's a very creative pile person and he's a neatnik. Soon after getting engaged, Lee made one of his usual teasing remarks, only this time Brooke felt criticized for her messes and was hurt and angry. Nothing had materially changed between them except that Brooke had a ring on her finger, but suddenly she thought she should be a domestic goddess and that they should be suddenly... perfect. She didn't realize it at the time, but Brooke had bought into the myth of the Instant Fiancé Upgrade.
Along with the joy and euphoria, getting engaged can generate a host of hidden expectations about what you should do and have and how you should look and act — for the bride-to-be in particular. And these can get you into trouble, because your beloved doesn't know that you have a new set of standards for yourself and for him. He's likely to disappoint you, hurt your feelings, or feel blindsided. Why doesn't he automatically know what's expect of him? Is it because he's inconsiderate or doesn't love you enough? Nope. It's because he's still just a guy, and the same one you fell in love with — not some new engaged version of himself.
In 20 years of helping couples create great partnerships, I've seen the illusion of the Instant Fiancé Upgrade undermine the most loving, well-matched, and well-meaning pairs, just like Lee and Brooke — who, with some coaching, realized their mistake before the wedding. (Brooke even said in her vows, "I do not promise to cook, but you will be fed.") But you want to nip these issues in the bud, because the Upgrade myth can pop up at every major turning point — see: the Instant Spouse, Homeowner, and Parent upgrades. Follow these steps to bypass the danger.
1. Uncover Your Hidden Expectations
Whether they're for your partner or yourself, you probably won't know what they are until they're not being met. To uproot yours, finish these sentences — and feel free to list more than one for each slot.
Now that we're engaged...
I should... (blank)
He should... (blank)
We should... (blank)
It can be as simple as "I should be happy all the time" or "He should attend all of my family's functions." After you've written your answers, begin again, using your other hand. It may feel strange, but you'll be surprised how many deeply hidden truths this trick will uncover.
2. Start Sorting the Facts from the Fantasy
Divide your expectations into the following categories:
A. I truly need this.
B. It would make me happy.
C. It's a small thing that makes a big difference.
D. What the heck is that?
Then, if it's an expectation you have for yourself and it falls into categories A-C (ditch the Ds), take steps to make it happen. Get up earlier so you can eat breakfast together every day. Set a savings goal so you can have the all-peony centerpieces you love.
As for your expectations of him, look at them through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Men are natural protectors and providers, and they want to give you what matters to you — again, as long as it falls into one of the first three categories. If it doesn't, or if it runs counter to his values or needs or threatens his career, financial security, dreams, or foundational relationships, he won't fulfill it. Likewise, anything you think you should have just because someone else does — things that tend to fall into category D — won't be worth his time, money, or energy. So suss those out and let them go.
3. Formulate Your "Great Asks"
For your fiancé to accept a new task, behavior, or accountability, your request should include:
— A simple statement of what you want. (For example, "I need you to weigh in more on wedding-planning details.")
— What that would look like, with specifics. ("A weekly check-in to discuss progress. And your commitment to attend vendor meetings where I need a second opinion.")
— What that would provide you. ("I would feel like I have a partner in the planning and in life.")
Once you've determined your asks, prioritize them. Most men like to move from success to success, and he needs the chance to implement your requests one at a time.
See More: Why You Should Marry Your BFF
4. Ask for a Time to Talk
Most people can't pay close attention when they're driving, transitioning home from work, or already focused on something else. In a quiet moment, say, "Could we set up a time to talk about something I need?" Make sure your tone is friendly and you're relaxed; if you're amped up, he'll think he's in trouble. And overestimate the time you need to talk, because he'll get antsy if you run long and you'll misinterpret it as his not being interested.
5. Make Your Asks
When the time arrives to deliver your first Great Ask, start by thanking him for hearing you out. Then go for it — slowly, clearly, and pausing from time to time to see if he has questions. If you feel embarrassed, you can tell him you're learning to ask for what you need and you want it to work for him. But try to be direct, because everyone appreciates a partner who asks for what she really needs. Remember, this is about making your relationship better, so there's something in it for him too!
6. Help Him Help You
After you've told him what you want, what it would look like, and what it would provide you, ask: "Is there anything you need in order to give me what I'm asking for?" Then put the invisible duct tape over your mouth and let him think. If he takes awhile to figure it out, that's good! While he's thinking, let go of everything you think he might come up with. (In more than 20 years, I have never accurately predicted what my husband will need for any request, large or small.) Once he's given you his answer, think: "Is there anything I need so he can fulfill my Great Ask?" This may sound complicated, but it's how you cover all the bases and make sure your hopes turn into reality.
7. Show Appreciation
Once you see him making an effort, be grateful! Even when it's not perfect. Even when it's not completely finished. Appreciation is the juice that fuels people to try new things instead of sticking to old habits. That means taking his effort personally, because he's trying for you, and saying "thank you" for his commitment and the difference he's making in your life together.
Then it's time to pat yourself on the back. It's not easy to ask for what you need. Way to be thoughtful and communicative as you navigate this new world!
This article appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of BRIDES.