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Are “expectations” bad for relationships?

Are "expectations" bad for relationships?

Is it OK to have expectations in a relationship?

Show me a relationship without expectations and I’ll show you a relationship built upon denial, passive-aggressive behaviours, rageful outbursts, and/or quiet despair.

We all have expectations of our partner whether we admit it or not. Acknowledging our expectations to ourselves and our partner means risking difficult conversations and even conflict. It means identifying and communicating our boundaries. This isn’t everyone’s strong point, so many people will avoid confronting their own expectations until things become unbearable, at which point they may suddenly leave the relationship.

Other people haven’t yet discovered that expectations are a normal and necessary part of relationships, so they twist themselves in knots trying to not expect anything. It’s as though having expectations is some kind of failure of character.

Still other people have extraordinary and unrealistic expectations that are bound to eventually make trouble in the relationship. These kinds of expectations are often unconscious, unexamined, and unarticulated, though I’ve worked with some individuals who demonstrably believe themselves to be entitled to their unrealistic and unfair expectations of their partner. In these cases it can be useful to explore where these expectations came from and to re-assess their legitimacy.

It’s helpful to get clear on what your expectations of your partner are, and to name them explicitly. Then you can assess them and decide which ones to discard and which to stand by. Which of your expectations are reasonable? Which are unreasonable? Which are downright ridiculous? (It’s OK to have a laugh at yourself!). Which are negotiable? Which are non-negotiable? Again, having no expectations (like having no boundaries) isn’t really an option in a healthy, vital, reciprocally satisfying relationship.

Ultimately everyone has to determine for themselves which of their expectations (and their partner’s) are reasonable or unreasonable, but I do have some ideas on the topic to share –

What are reasonable expectations in a relationship?

Some examples of expectations that fall into the category of reasonable –

  • I expect my partner to tell me the truth about their feelings and intentions.
  • I expect my partner to do what they say they will do, or offer an explanation when they are unable to follow through on their commitments.
  • I expect my partner to apologize and genuinely feel sorry when they mis-step and hurt me.
  • I expect my partner to reveal enough of their inner world to me that I can feel emotionally intimate with them.
  • I expect my partner to be able to hear my perspectives even when they differ from their own.

What are unreasonable expectations?

Some examples of expectations that fall into the category of unreasonable –

  • I expect my partner to read my mind or know more about my inner world than I can articulate.
  • I expect my partner to reveal everything about their inner world all the time.
  • I expect my partner to get all their needs met by me and to meet all my needs.
  • I expect my partner to always match my level of either emotionality or rationality.
  • I expect my partner to see the world pretty much exactly as I do.

The question isn’t whether you have expectations of your partner (you do, even if you don’t recognize it), it’s whether you are conscious of these expectations and willing to articulate them clearly. Also, you don’t have to immediately affirm or discard your expectations. Start by recognizing them. Name them. Live with them for a while and continue to examine them in the context of your relationship, then decide which ones you need to hold on to and which ones you want to let go of; just be honest with yourself about the difference.

To learn more about managing expectations in relationships, read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

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