Prodigal Magazine

Unmet Expectations in a Feminist Christian Marriage

Throughout our nearly two year engagement, my now husband and I intentionally prepared for marriage in a variety of ways. One of the primary ways we prepared was through clearly and openly communicating our intentions and expectations in our current and future relationship.

Since much of our identities are shaped by our upbringing, we spent many, many hours talking about our families of origin to better understand the similarities and differences.  

Most visibly, our home structures were quite similar: 

—our fathers worked outside the home in careers that provided well for our families, and our mothers stayed at home to care for the children and to manage the home. But there were certainly many contrasts, especially early on in our relationship when we turned to one another countless times with curiosity (and often frustration) and asked, “Why are you doing that?!” 

One of the most important and ongoing conversations we had as an engaged couple was what our marriage would look like since we’re both Christians and feminists.* 

We discussed this in practical ways such as whether I would take his last name or not (nope, we created an entirely new family name together) and how we would make decisions (mutually, with prayer and outside wisdom when necessary).  

We also pondered more hypothetically about our “grown up” responsibilities and goals as Christian feminists, particularly around children and career. Would we have children? If so, when would we potentially start trying? How do we feel about adoption? Would someone stay home with the children while we worked, our would we pay for childcare? If someone stayed home with the children, would that be assumed that it was me, or would my husband consider it?

Since my husband is almost four years older than I am, I fully expected that he would be further along and more established in his career by the time we married or at least shortly thereafter that.

After all, he was a graduate student pursuing his PhD in a rapidly-growing and high-demand industry (solar energy chemistry) while I was graduating with an undergraduate degree. It made sense that as soon as he graduated from his PhD program that he would receive a more competitive and higher-paying offer than I currently have in my respectable, but relatively entry-level position.  

As the younger and less experienced professional, I expected my husband to have a more lucrative career and for me to serve as the secondary breadwinner for our family.

I never thought to ask during our engagement what it would be like for me to be the primary breadwinner if we both worked. It just didn’t make sense to me at the time. How would I with a BA in international law and politics have a more lucrative career than someone with a PhD in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) field? No, no, no, I thought, that doesn’t make sense at all. It simply didn’t cross my mind as a possibility during our engagement. 

It didn’t cross my mind for the first year of our marriage, either.  

During our first year as husband and wife, I was the primary breadwinner, but I justified it because my husband was still in grad school. I figured that as soon as he graduated, he would find a much more competitive offer and we’d move (if necessary) to wherever his job was located.  

I even figured that this would be a pattern throughout the first several years or even decade of our marriage before I became more established in my career and/or went back to school for my own advanced degree. 

But it didn’t work like that. And because of these unmet expectations, I felt out of control in my disappointment and grief and confusion.  

You see, when my husband graduated with his PhD, I didn’t become the secondary breadwinner; I became the only breadwinner. For several months — so far eight, to be precise.  

In the first month or two after he graduated, we enjoyed our new arrangement. We went on a relaxing vacation. We tackled some projects around the house. We trained for a half marathon together.  

And we reallocated our division of labor in the home so that my husband would make dinner during the week and I would prepare meals on the weekend instead of us switching off each day.  

All in all, we had fun, but we couldn’t wait to get back to a more routine schedule of us both working during the day. Plus, job searching for eight hours per day for weeks in a row can be demoralizing. We weren’t worried, though, and we expected to hear back from soon. 

We didn’t hear back.  

Through months three, four, and five, he applied and applied and applied. In a couple instances, he actually interviewed, but then got turned down. Most of the places just went radio silent. Meanwhile, I started getting cabin fever. We had expected to move out of our cozy condo by this point, and now the space constraints seemed unbearable. Not having a desk to write became more of a frustration. We had preemptively packed most of our books in boxes that were now piled high in the corners of our home. Everything seemed to be breaking down or perpetually dusty despite our best wrangling with the Swiffer. 

I started rearranging the furniture every month or so to feel like at least something was in my control.  

By month six, we were losing our minds. In the midst of depression and gotta-get-out-of-here anxiety, we finally broke down.  We allowed ourselves to voice and then grieve our unmet expectations. I mourned the loss of expecting my husband to be the primary breadwinner. My husband shared his despair of feeling purposeless.

Together we tried to reevaluate our former expectations and create new ones.

Airing out our unmet expectations didn’t magically transform our despair into joy and contentment. It didn’t get my husband a job. It didn’t add a hundred more square feet in our home. But it did allow us to evolve with one another, to reevaluate what our marriage would look like as Christians and feminists…

 – what it would look like as us.

What kind of expectations have you brought into a relationship? How did you handle the relationship when you felt expectations went unmet?

* I understand that there is a lot of baggage around the terms “feminism” and “feminist,” especially in some parts of the Christian community. To understand more clearly what I mean by “Christian feminist,” please refer to this post on what Christian feminism is and isn’t. For further reading, check out the 130+ posts written by Christian feminists during #FemFest, a three-day synchroblog hosted by J.R. Goudeau, Preston Yancey, and me in February 2013 about what we think feminism is, why we think it matters, and what questions we still have about the other “f-word.”

[Photo: linh.ngan, Creative Commons]

About The Author

Danielle L. Vermeer is creative strategist and strategic creative. A social impact consultant by day and storyteller and social entrepreneur by night, she uses power of stories combined with data to explain complex issues in compelling yet easy-to-understand ways. She lives in the Chicagoland area with her husband and dog. Connect with her at daniellelvermeer.com or on Twitter at @DLVermeer.

  • http://twitter.com/amyunchained Amy Mitchell

    It’s hard, isn’t it? We did that for almost 2 years while my husband sought work as a teacher. I was our primary income, even though my job didn’t pay well, because it was steady and I carried our health insurance. During that time, we talked a lot about what we would do if/when we had kids. We assumed that whoever had the higher income would continue to work, because we did the math–if he remained a substitute teacher, it would just about cover child care; if I had remained in my previous job, it wouldn’t even have covered child care. We also both believed that one of us should be home when the kids were small anyway. As it turned out, I was back in school when we had both kids (it took me 5 years!), so I stayed home. I don’t regret it at all–it led to homeschooling and the chance for me to write and edit. Staying home gave me back my dreams, rather than squelching them (for some of my friends, it was just the opposite; staying home was stifling, in part because of rigid expectations about who stays home). Part of me wonders, though. I think my husband would have been just as happy staying home as I have been, and I might have been just as happy in a career.

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      It’s SO hard! It’s not that I don’t enjoy being the breadwinner in the family, it’s that I wish it didn’t necessarily HAVE to be this way — that we had more flexibility in our choices to make whatever decision was best, not just economically necessary. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Amy. It never gets easier, does it?

      • http://twitter.com/amyunchained Amy Mitchell

        It really doesn’t. If you have a certain expectation, and then that doesn’t happen, it’s hard on everyone. I know what that feels like in a career (I hated being a nurse!). It’s hard to switch gears and imagine a different path.

  • http://twitter.com/CLRgrrl Clairikine

    This isn’t a contribution to the conversation, but I know two couples (one famous, one not) that got whole new names after they got married, and I think it’s pretty rad.

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Thanks, Clairikine! We think it’s pretty cool, too.

  • http://twitter.com/diana_dawn Diana Palka

    Danielle,

    Thank you SO much for sharing this. I think the vulnerability here is what makes this article so rich. The fact of the matter is that the heart of your article is so SPOT ON. Unmet expectations just plain suck. And they do throw us into this crazy-angst-filled-tizzy of re-evaluation and all that tedious in-between stuff.

    I do have one question – and I mean it with the UTMOST respect and sincerity. What does this have to do with feminism, Christian or not? I guess what I mean to say is that I simply don’t see how feminism plays into this (and I’m completely open to the possibility that I’ve either a/missed the point or b/don’t know enough about your story). To me, it seems like this predicament is not unique to (Christian) feminism, but really is something any and everyone can experience.

    To be 100% transparent, I have been trying for SO long to understand Christian feminism – and even engage in fruitful dialogue – so I really am eager to hear your take on this. (PS, I’ve read your post “What Christian Feminism Is and Isn’t” and also really enjoyed that — but I even still have all these hang ups in my head/heart.)

    Looking forward to hearing from you & thank you again for sharing!

    Diana

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Diana,

      Thanks for your note and for bringing this up. I’m really glad you took away the main point of the article — unmet expectations and how we grieve and readjust to new expectations. I included the references to our marriage as both Christian and feminist because I think it’s important to share those integral pieces of our marriage as relating directly to how we address unmet and met expectations — unmet expectations in how I expected my husband to be the primary breadwinner (and to show that yes, feminists are okay with this), and met expectations that we created together in what expectations we would have for each other and our marriage in the first place (dual careers, sharing domestic duties, mutuality in decision-making, etc.).

      I hope that clarifies a bit, but I’m more than happy to answer any other questions you have!

      Peace,
      Danielle

      • http://twitter.com/diana_dawn Diana Palka

        This definitely clarifies – and I’m really happy to understand your story a bit better.

        Your piece on “What Christian Feminism Is and Isn’t” was one of the most eye-opening pieces on the subject I’ve read – and I think it debunks a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes – some of which I’ve even subscribed to in the past. I think these misconceptions need to be written about more – because at the root of it, Christian feminism is motivated by love.

        Thank you again for sharing and for being so willing to answer all my crazy questions!

        • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

          Great to hear, Diana. Let me know if you have more questions — I believe you have my email, too.

  • http://twitter.com/Ruthie_Dean Ruthie Dean

    Love this post, Danielle! I can relate. Thanks for writing!

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Thanks, Ruthie!!

  • Anya

    I am going on year four+ of being the primary breadwinner, first because of the bad economy, then because my husband pursued his dream job, and now (and for another year) because he is back in school. It took some time–between complaining about carrying all of the financial burden–before I realized that, as a feminist, this is likely the more comfortable place for me to be. (And also realizing that, if the positions were reversed, the feminist in me might be upset with how my partner complained about or tried to control my spending. Oops.) However, the silver lining was the realization that we could survive ok on a single medium income salary, and that if/when we have children, we’ll be able to make that work (mostly) if we are in a similar situation. My husband and I certainly grapple with and argue about gender stereotypes at times–and I was about to say they are more benign, but our arguments about cleaning and cooking are far more explosive than disagreements about income or spending. I suppose those are our unmet expectations! …which we both have over years made small concessions on to get closer to the middle ground where we are now. It’s a slow evolution.

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Great point, Anya. It definitely has showed us how we can absolutely “survive” on one income, and now we see the value in living only on one (the lesser one) when we both have jobs. It curbs the cultural pressure of materialism and over-consumption, which we also are trying to be conscious of. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

    I’m not married, but I definitely have gone through/am going through this with my relationship. I never wanted or expected to be in a long-distance relationship for any length of time, much less almost a year+. That plus a lot of other things being different than what I expected has made for a crazy yet wonderful ride so far, even when it’s hard.

    Thanks for writing this, Danielle.

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Oh, I feel you. We were long distance for THREE YEARS, including a stint while I was literally thousands of miles away. It’s so, so tough. Hope things look up for you soon! :-)

  • pastordt

    This is just terrific, Danielle. Yes, we all live with unmet expectations and they need to be hauled out of the caves they hide in and exposed to the light of day. When they are, we most often begin to see how terribly unfair they are and how others have the same kind of feelings toward us, especially spouses! Thank you.

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Thank you so much, Diana. I really appreciate your wisdom and strength. I would love to just curl up with a cup of coffee and hear more of your stories & about your marriage. I have so much to learn!

  • http://www.allthingsbeautifulblog.com/ Alyssa Bacon-Liu

    I get this. I SO get this. Even as a proud feminist, it’s crazy how unprepared I was to be 24, newly married, and the primary breadwinner. As women, we’re not conditioned to desire or expect to be the breadwinner in our marriage (sadly), so it’s not a surprise to me that I became very overwhelmed at the thought of being financially responsible for my family. Plus the stress of unemployment for either partner is a lot to bear. For the first time in almost two years of marriage, my husband makes more money than I do. And it’s funny because when he received his recent raise, I was so proud of him but also jealous that now he has that role of breadwinner that I had been getting used to! So I get this. I just really do. Thanks for sharing.

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Thanks, Alyssa! It’s funny isn’t it — that you say and act as if you have certain values until all of a sudden it jumps out at you and asks, “what now?” I’m comfortable being the only breadwinner, but the very American-ness in me wishes that it were a choice to be the only breadwinner, not due to economic constraints.

  • Lucie

    One thing my years have taught me is that nothing ever turns out exactly as you expect, and I do mean NOTHING. Life contains too many variables. This is especially difficult for us “planners” to accept. We’d all be better off holding our dreams/expectations a bit more loosely. Of course, actually doing that is the hard part.

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      It is SO hard for us planners to accept — you are very right. I’m learning to have less of a plan, and eventually hoping to not have a “plan” in the strict sense of the word at all. Thanks for sharing, Lucie!

  • http://lightovercomesdarkness.com/ Rev Wendy Wolf

    Thanks for sharing so honestly, Danielle.
    Lots in common with you, as do so many others!

    Michael and I are feminists.

    We enjoy a shared last name from a vision God gave me – we Really enjoy it!
    His dad had trouble with Michael changing his name, but everyone else was positive, or neutral.

    Michael recently went back to work after 10 months looking for a job. It was hard to watch him feel rejected and be aching to contribute. It was stressful for me to feel the weight of our family’s finances on my back alone.

    AND, it was thrilling for me, for 2 reasons:

    1) for many years of our relationship, Michael had to carry us financially, because I was bed-ridden with chronic illness for many years. It felt so good to be able to support him a fraction of the time that he supported me.

    2) I was so blessed that I Could do it! I have my dream-job, I am an independent minister doing what I am called to do, serving who I am called to serve. I would do what I do for free – and I have, a lot! So, it is a mind-blowing blessing to earn enough money, doing what I LOVE, to support our family.

    blessings, wendy

  • http://www.alifewithsubtitles.com/ Sarah Quezada

    Thank you for this post. My husband went through a several-year stint of unemployment and for two years of that time was a full-time stay-at-home dad. We are both very “loose” with our gender roles, but I was surprised how much I struggled with feeling overwhelmed at being the sole income provider. I really felt like I had never planned on that… or perhaps I would’ve chosen a different career path! Seriously, I never noticed that in my idealistic “follow your passions” young adulthood, I was subconsciously assuming someone else would be taking care of the financial needs…