The ironic thing about this month of love is that the first six weeks or so of the New Year are the busiest time of the year for divorce lawyers (or so they say). Seems that many people are not feeling as much love and romance as Hallmark would hope. Many are actually feeling hate.

I have a theory about this.

If I asked my grandmother if her late husband was her best friend, her provider, her lover, and her partner in parenting and life—her go-to guy for emotional fulfillment, practical help, AND the center of her social universe—she would have laughed uproariously.

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She did love her hubby until the day he died and still misses him so much she weeps talking about him, more than 30 years after his death. But my Opa wasn’t her best friend (her girlfriend Beulah was). She didn’t rely on him for help raising the kids or with the housework (times have changed!), nor did she expect him to understand her feelings. She relied on herself for happiness and fulfillment—and truthfully, she didn’t have high expectations there, either.

But she’d tell you she had a wonderful marriage. When I asked her if she had had a happy life (she’s now 104 years old), she giggled at the absurdity of the question. Clearly she has.

And yet, like most of my peers, I would not sign up for her life—or, in particular, her marriage. Today, we expect our spouses to be our partners in just about every realm. We expect them to be our co-parents, our household running mates, and to help provide for our family financially. We’d think there was something wrong if they didn’t consider us their soul mate, their go-to buddy, and their lover.

Like individuals, couples are increasingly isolated from the outside sources of support that previous generations had, and so our partners have become our primary sources of emotional (and for some, spiritual) fulfillment. When we aren’t happy, it is easy—and quite common—for our generation to blame our spouse for it.

There is an expectations paradox here: The demands put on our relationships have become so great—and our expectations of them have gotten so high—that we are more likely to be disappointed when we don’t get what we want from our partners than we are to feel grateful when we do.

My grandmother expected very little from her husband—only that he provide her with financial stability, and that he be faithful to her. My grandfather delivered on these things, and as an added bonus, shared with her a love of dancing, a social life full of mutual friends and dinner parties, and a muted joy in raising children and grandchildren.

My grandmother was content not so much because of what she had in her husband, but because of what she lacked in her expectations. This is both ironic and instructive for our generation.

Consider the study where Duke professor Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, had research subjects try two different types of beer. One was Budweiser; the other was Budweiser with balsamic vinegar added to it.

The majority of subjects vastly preferred the Bud and vinegar concoction—when they weren’t told what it was. When they were informed before they tasted it, they hated it.

Ariely’s conclusion is that when people believe that something might be distasteful, they’ll experience it negatively, even if they would have liked it otherwise. The reverse is also true.

In other words: Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel.

“Help! I hate my husband!”  a reader recently wrote to Iris Krasnow, author of The Secret Lives of Wives . Krasnow’s reader, Cindy from Dallas, emails her that “[this] hate I feel, it simmers and I wonder if it’s a sign that there could be a better partner out there for me. Little things grate on me every day. My husband chews his food loudly. I hate his father. I hate our domestic hum-drum. This can’t be love!”

Krasnow clarifies that this hated husband is not a philanderer or dead-beat dad. He is not a compulsive gambler, nor is he physically or verbally abusive. He is a warm, hands-on father who makes a good living. Cindy from Dallas clarifies: “My hate comes from this feeling that I’m missing out on something else.”

Ah-ha. We Americans are born and bred to expect, well, everything. The American Dream—which, from a happiness habit standpoint, is a bit more of an American Nightmare—teaches us to always be striving. We can always have it better than our parents’ generation, if only we work hard enough.

More than that, we are entitled to more, and better. We expect that we should have unlimited choice when it comes to shoes, housing, cars, types of jam at the grocery store ... and spouses.

Barry Schwartz’s research shows that this expectation of unlimited choice hurts our happiness for two reasons. First, more choices don’t actually make us happier—they just make us long for what we give up. The more choices we have, the more likely we are to feel unhappy with the choice that we do make, because we see all that we could have had in the other choices.

And second, if we’re constantly gazing over our partner’s shoulder for the next best thing, we won’t be gazing into his or her eyes.  Feeling gratitude for our partners is key to a successful relationship. But we’re unlikely to feel grateful for what we have when we feel entitled to something better, something more. We cannot feel truly committed to someone if we also feel that there might be someone else out there for us.

The abundance of choice in our society—and the advertising and media culture that (quite effectively) makes us feel that we won’t be complete until we acquire that next great thing—is taking its toll on our relationships.

Of course there is someone else out there for you. There always is. The real question is about whether or not you can be happy with the person you are already with. 

All of this raises several more questions for me: How much can we really expect of our spouses and still be happy? How can we let go of unrealistic expectations?  We know that expectations can lead us to relationship-killers, like nagging, contempt, and criticism; how can we respond constructively when our expectations aren’t met?

What questions does this post raise for you?

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