I recently went on a backpacking trip with my dad and brother. We had talked about the trip for the last six months. The trip was a celebration of my dad’s 60th birthday. We had all the necessary ingredients for a successful trip: maps, fly rods, tobacco pipes and some of Jack’s finest bourbon.

Well, the trip did not have the start I had expected. We had to change our route the day of because of a report we received from a park ranger. We scrambled and came up with an alternative route. Then, within the first hour my dad was complaining of intense pain in his hips from an ill-fitting backpack. That night at the campsite, my brother became ill with stomach pains and a headache. All my expectations of great talks around the campfire about family, God, and politics were replaced with groans and silence. I was disappointed.

The next morning my dad noticed my disappointed and asked me what was wrong. I shared with him and my brother that I was not trying to be insensitive to their discomfort, but I was really disappointed that our trip was going the way it was. They were able to hear me and I was able to hear their frustrations about their physical discomfort. As I took “a walk in the woods” I was able to reflect more. I realized that my expectations were driving me. Instead of just accepting the trip for what it was I was trying to “make it what I expected it to be” at the cost of damaging our time together.

I have seen this dynamic of expecting versus accepting show up in my counseling office. Our expectations of what we thought things would be can sometimes drive us to try and make our partner or our marriage fit that expectation. It’s like trying to fit a square peg in around hole. That desire to change our partner or our marriage to fit our expectations usually comes across as rejection or controlling. To them it can feel like we do not accept them or they are not good enough.

My focus for the first day of our backpacking trip was on where I thought we “should be” and what I thought “we should be talking about” instead of just being present and making the most of our time.

I am not saying expectations are bad, nor am I saying that we should not strive for better relationships. What I’m saying is that the road to a better relationship begins with accepting. When we accept those around us for who they are we are more capable of being emotionally and mentally present without the weight of an unrealistic agenda hanging over our heads. Look to accept those that you are close to and keep your expectations in check.

Joshua Emery