the grace of divorce – why we go: undefined expectations

It wasn’t until after my mother passed when I had a number of revelations about how she managed our home when I was still living in it. Not sure how much nostalgia changes memories, and death certainly can sanctify even the most unsaintly (there’s hope for me), but I don’t recall seeing my mother doing laundry.

Either I wasn’t paying attention or she’s magic.

There was plenty of evidence; hospital corners on starched sheets, pressed tighty whities and t-shirts, creased Levis, and all organized and stacked so neatly as if the laundry fairy were a live-in. But I don’t remember her using the ironing board, the oldest appliance in the house, or changing loads. She must have done it somewhere between the full breakfast she made for my dad every morning, making my lunch, and selling real estate. I was home for most of the rest of the time, and to my chagrin of admitting it, I didn’t help much.

So, naturally, the first week of my first marriage when it became clear that the laundry fairy didn’t get the wedding invitation, I asked my wife, “Think we could get some laundry done around here?” (We is such a funny first person, personal pronoun in these instances, because we all know it means second person singular.)

Not really, I didn’t really say that. I hope I didn’t say anything like that. After awhile, though, some default gender roles and expectations started to evolve and challenge us on levels from balancing the checkbook to filling the car with gas.

All stuff too boring to talk about when we were dating. Like our parents, we’d default to undefined gender expectations over the course of our marriage, which works within the context that both parties might be used to. But it doesn’t take much to change the happy context of any couple, plunging them into unknown territory.

Like unrealistic beliefs, undefined expectations aren’t much of a threat at the outset until resentment settles in. Laundry is not a reasonable irreconcilable difference. When undefined expectations climb the hierarchy of what matters, from ironing to bathing babies or mowing lawns to climbing corporate ladders, the range of disappointment extends as well.

She decides to continue her education while he debates the costs of day care. He buys the new compound bow while she shuttles to the laundromat. He travels the world with his career while she raises the children. She brings home the bacon while he telecommutes. He spends Sundays at the pulpit while she wrestles children in the pews.

The longer expectations remain undefined, the more self-sacrificing the support, the more turgid the regret. Pile up these swelling excuses for negotiation (you got your diploma, now I want a boat), and the more the both of you feel slighted, cheated, unfulfilled, wronged; all ingredients of that relational black mold of regret. It’s usually not discovered until it’s done it’s damage.

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