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Great Expectations . . .

. . . can bring big disappointments. Once the reality of married life sets in, spouses learn they didn't exactly get what they bargained for.


The vows have been said, the cake cut, the rose petals thrown. And soon enough, just as the saying goes, the honeymoon is over.

Then comes marriage, and an awareness of things about our partners and ourselves that can't be predicted, but which must be worked through if the couple is to thrive.

"The couple goes through a transition that is almost always a surprise, is frequently distressing, but universal," says Dr. Samuel Pauker, a psychiatrist who, with his wife, Miriam Arond, wrote "The First Year of Marriage: What to Expect, What to Accept and What You Can Change for a Lasting Marriage" (Warner Books, 1987). "Most people begin to put their partner under a more high-powered microscope. Is this person all the things I wanted?"

Some disappointment is inevitable because partners often idealize each other in ways no one could live up to. Moreover, what one partner wishes in the other may even be contradictory, says Pauker, who is in private practice in New York City and is an assistant clinical professor at Cornell University Medical College at New York Hospital.

For example, he says, a woman may think she wants a man who will take care of her but then feels controlled, or a man wants a woman who will let him be in charge and then finds he resents her for being too passive. The possibilities are endless, but in the end the partners have to come to terms with who they are, not what they wish each other to be.

"Hopefully, they'll reach some new level of reconciliation in the course of which they have grown personally and the couple has grown," Pauker says. "Frequently we have to mourn the fact that our partners may not be all we want. Hopefully, they are a lot of what we want."

Underlying expectations also can be turned on oneself. Dalma Heyn, author of "Marriage Shock: The Emotional Transformation of Women into Wives" (Villard Books) says many women, despite all the changes of recent years, still measure themselves against an ideal of the perfect wife.

"I'm talking about the subtle imposition of a cultural icon onto us, one we don't even understand," Heyn says. "What I've been finding talking to women is that something seems to happen. She suddenly feels she's supposed to become something. She's got these 'shoulds' that greet her at the altar."

The irony is that if she contorts herself to meet the ideal, she risks losing her husband's love. Says Heyn: "Men often say, 'I want the woman I married. I want my Becky back.' 'I want my Anne back. Where is this coming from? I'm not asking you to be my mother, my Donna Reed.' "

Complicating the process is the tendency of partners to assume that each holds the same view of marriage, that each has identical expectations. "They assume the other person's perceptions are really the same as theirs," says Betsy Stone, a psychologist in Stamford, Conn., and author of "Happily Ever After: Making the Transition From Getting Married to Being Married" (Doubleday).

"Add to that a cultural expectation that if you really love me you understand how I feel--'I not only have this set of expectations but I don't feel any need to share them with you because you should know them.' "

This can play itself out in any number of misunderstandings over everything from how birthdays are celebrated to who sets the table for dinner. The events themselves may seem mundane and minor, but the emotions they trigger are not. However seemingly disproportionate, they run deep and can spark puzzling, even painful disagreements.

"Fighting is one of the real sticker shocks of marriage," Stone says. "We don't expect to fight with our partners."

This is a naive notion, she says, explaining that most people fight only with the people with whom they are closest--parents, siblings, a few very close friends. "Why would we expect to not fight with our spouses?" she says. "In some sense, it tells you how important this chosen relationship is."

Still, how conflict is handled is one of the first important clues as to how newlyweds will fare as a married couple.

"The question isn't who's going to win the battle," Stone says. "In the grand scheme of life, the critical question is, how do we negotiate this so that nobody is damaged? The couples have to figure out that there is a way to resolve problems where the resolution is communication, not winning."

"It's not bad to have fights," Pauker says. "If you know what to do with them, they're a source of growth for you individually and as a couple. It's the fights we go through with our partner that make our relationship feel special. You won't go through that with people you don't care about."

Couples also have to learn that certain situations--for example, whose job matters most at any given time--may have to be revisited repeatedly. Again, the key is not that the couple disagrees but how they go about resolving their differences.

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