Are Expectations Healthy for Relationships?
Written by Lauren Helm, Ph.D.
Throughout the course of our lives we develop many expectations about how we think our relationships should look and how others should treat us. Many of these expectations about relationships are so embedded in our way of thinking that they are hidden from our view and fall outside of conscious awareness, and yet these sometimes invisible (and not so invisible) expectations powerfully influence how we interact with and respond to one another. Unchecked expectations can run rampant, especially within the context of relationships, and run the risk of breeding resentment – not only in ourselves, but in our friends, family, and partner as well. But why is this? Isn’t it a healthy or “good” thing to hold high expectations of ourselves or others? To have high standards?
What Are Expectations?
To determine whether expectations are helpful or unhelpful, it’s often useful to start by clarifying what we mean when we use the word “expectation.” What is an expectation, really? The Oxford Dictionary defines expectation as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” In other words, an expectation is an assumption that a certain event will occur: That A will lead to B (or put simply, A --> B). This is similar to a prediction, which is a calculation that a certain event is likely to occur in the future, based on facts or evidence. However, an expectation is different from a prediction in that it becomes conflated with assumption, which is “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.” In the context of relationships, expectations are often unquestioned assumptions that someone ought to say or do something, rather than the informed prediction that they may. Expectations feel more like “rules,” rather than likelihoods. When rules are broken (A does NOT lead to B), a very different kind of reaction is evoked in us than when a simple likelihood does not pan out.
What Purpose Do Expectations Serve?
The meaning of expectation becomes much more complex when we consider the range possible functions that expectations may serve in our lives. We commonly experience an expectation not only as a belief or assumption that something should happen, but also as an attachment to (or corresponding emotional desire for) this particular outcome as well. We want it to happen, and are emotionally invested in it. Attachment to a particular outcome creates a negative emotional charge if we perceive that we didn’t get the outcome we are attached to.
Although attachment to outcome leads to painful emotional consequences if our expectations go unfulfilled, I would like to suggest that expectations or attachments are not universally harmful or “bad.” I believe there is nothing inherently bad or good about having “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future,” or having desire for a particular outcome. In my view, having expectations and attachment absolutely makes sense, especially when we consider what roles they serve from an evolutionary perspective.
Expecting that something will happen in the future is an essential survival tool that humans possess, which stems from our cognitive ability to think and plan ahead. Future-oriented thinking and planning has aided us in rapidly advancing and evolving as a species for many reasons, but especially because it allows us to predict and avoid harmful or depriving situations. Attachment to certain outcomes creates the emotional drive and motivation to avoid harm and to pursue pleasure and safety. We often use expectations to help us determine whether aspects of our lives (such as our relationships, career, living situation, or environment, etc.) “measure up,” and if not, our attachment to a different outcome may help motivate us to create change.
In a sense, expectations become a form of judgment – an evaluative process informed by whether what we thought what “ought” to happen did. Much of the time, what we want or need influences what we believe should happen, especially within relationships. In this way, expectations are emotionally-driven beliefs about what we think needs to happen so that we can create lives that are happy, fulfilled, and keep us safe. From this perspective, it makes sense that when expectations go unmet, our minds automatically interpret this negatively and experience varying forms of intense emotional reactions that motivate us to correct the situation and move us back into a safe place, conducive for survival. Thus, in and of itself, expectation is not a “bad” thing, and can actually be helpful.
Indeed, expectations within relationships are commonplace and may be essential for creating healthy, safe, and supportive partnerships. Fitzpatrick and Sollie (1999) found that when participants in their study felt that their current relationship was close to what they would consider to be an ideal relationship, they reported greater levels relationship satisfaction, investment, and commitment to their partners. Our expectations often can reveal what we value and want to create within our relationships, and we tend to feel more satisfied when these expectations are met.
The Consequences of Unmet Expectations
That said, we can also get trapped in a vicious cycle when we do not have the awareness or tools we need for adaptively responding to unmet expectations. In a somewhat darkly revealing manner, the Oxford Dictionary illustrates how the word “expectation” may be used in a sentence, by providing the following example: “Reality has not lived up to expectations.” Not surprisingly, in defining expectation, we readily turn our minds to the painful experience of unmet expectations. Nearly all of us have felt the heavy drop of disappointment, and the sting of hurt, frustration, shame, or even rage that may come when reality sharply does not live up to our expectations (especially when it is a loved one has not lived up to our expectations and done what they “should”). Emotional wounding can be created from profoundly painful unmet expectations within relationships, particularly when unmet expectations leave us feeling intruded upon, neglected, betrayed, or abandoned. Researchers have found that when expectations about connection, passion, and destiny go unmet, the satisfaction and commitment within relationships is undermined (Vannier & O’Sullivan, 2017). Sometimes, unmet expectations can be seen as a sign that we are not matched well with a partner. However, oftentimes, due to our social conditioning about romantic relationships, relationship expectations can be unrealistic or overly romantic in ways that make them almost impossible for a partner to meet, creating discontent and dissatisfaction. How many of us have expected that if our partner really loved us, they should be able to read our mind? Or that if we are in a “good” relationship, there should be very little to no conflict? Or that that for my partner to be my soulmate, my partner should enjoy the same activities I do, preferring to do them in the same way I do, and wanting to do them at the same time that I want? That my partner should know what I need, without my telling them? That the dishes should have been done already? And so on.
The problem with expectations in relationships is not that we have desires, needs, or boundaries (which are absolutely necessary for healthy relationship functioning), but rather, the problem is the emotional aftermath and suffering that happens when expectations go unseen, unquestioned, and are repeatedly unmet. Our minds almost always interpret and assign additional meaning to why unmet expectations occur, which compounds the emotional distress from feeling let down. Here are a few general examples of the possible emotional consequences of unmet expectations:
(1) Unmet expectations can lead me to feel as though the world is disorderly, chaotic, and/or does not make sense (because A did not lead to B, when I thought it had to). I may be left feeling confused or paralyzed because my expectations were logical rules that ordered chaos, and provided a sense of predictability that has now been stripped away.
(2) Unmet expectations can feel as though an unquestionable “rule” has been broken, leaving me with self-righteous anger or moral outrage in response to this perceived injustice, which may feel like a personal offense. Alternatively, I may question or mistrust others’ ability or willingness to “follow the rules.”
(3) Unmet expectations can feel as though I have been deprived of a critical resource because the thing I wanted and expected to happen did not (my desire or need has been blocked from me).
In response to the pain caused by these interpretations, our minds (often subconsciously) then try to determine how to address the source of unmet expectations. However, the process by which our minds try to “solve” the problem of unmet expectations is often by generating judgment-laden causal inferences about “why A is not leading to B,” which can then lead to a worsening spiral of painful emotions.
For example, if my partner has not met my expectation on a repeated basis and I am feeling emotionally distraught as a result, my mind is likely going to try to figure out why this is to try and fix it. Usually, when strong emotions are involved in the reasoning process, our minds tend to quickly jump to broad-sweeping conclusions and spend less time objectively evaluating the facts. Perhaps my partner and I really do see things differently, and hold different expectations. Usually, I am not likely to see this as acceptable – instead, I will perceive it as a threat and a problem. My mind will go into evaluative-mode and try to figure out why and what it must mean that they are not meeting my expectations. If you follow the trail of the mind’s automatic flow of thoughts you might find something like this… Why did they do this? Do they not care? Is there something wrong with how they see the world? Is there something wrong with who they are? Is there something wrong with me for expecting this? Do I expect too much? Is there something wrong with who I am? Within the context of close personal relationships, often a conclusion is made that about our partner’s or our own character. They (or I) must have done this because there is something wrong with them. There must be something flawed or bad about them (or me).
In sum, my mind has now concluded that the problem is that my partner is “bad” or “wrong” because I did not get what I expected. I essentially blame them for the frustration, disappointment, or sadness that comes from having my expectations unmet. Then, the “solution” is often to “fix or get rid of the problem (my partner).” Ouch! This line of thinking is strewn with judgments and will clearly color your experience of your relationship, and it is a recipe for resentment and/or shame (and more). If I try to “fix” my partner and this does not work, resentment builds, more judgments occur, and I am likely to emotional distance myself from them. Ultimately, we tend to experience more pain and disconnection as a result of this cycle. Even if my partner concedes and shifts his/her behavior to meet my expectations, there is a sense of obligation and duty – almost as though they are not doing this of their own free will. In turn, trust may be undermined and resentment, once again, can build.
This kind of responding to unmet expectations is very common, especially when expectations are gripped tightly and without question. Without our conscious awareness of their presence or power, expectations have the potential to drive our relationships with ourselves or others into the ground. Excessive and unchecked expectations have to potential to be detrimental to healthy relationships with the self or other.
How Can We Better Respond to Expectations?
Often, we haven’t taken a step back enough to see that there are alternatives to automatically evaluating our relationships based on our unique set of expectations. The only alternative we may be aware of is to “lower our expectations,” which is really not too appealing if it leads us to “settle.” Should we not want to strive for more? Should we not expect to be treated with more respect? More love?
I’d like to suggest that the problem is not that we have expectations (or even that we have “too many” expectations), but that when expectations are gripped tightly and without mindful awareness, they can stoke the fire of blame, self-judgment, and suffering. Here are a few suggestions for how you might respond to you and your partner’s expectations a little differently:
I. Expect that you (and your partner) will have expectations:
- Accept that expectations will be there whether you want them to be there or not. Expectations are largely ingrained in how we think for multiple reasons (e.g. they are connected to our brain’s strongly developed evaluative and planning abilities; they may be influenced by or even born from social and cultural conditioning, family norms, past personal experiences, etc.). That said, you can practice strengthening your conscious awareness of your expectations. Take note of what they are, how they show up, and how you respond so that you have a greater ability to intentionally choose how to deal with them.
- Remember, expectations are not inherently bad or good. Sometimes they can be helpful in informing our decision-making, especially when we step back to look at the whole picture and objectively identify as many contributing factors as we can. Sometimes they can be unhelpful, and create disempowerment or inaction.
- Try to come up with a plan for tolerating and coping with the disappointment and emotional pain that comes from unmet expectations. Use regular self-care and self-compassion when you experience a let-down. For severe disappointment or emotionally traumatic experiences, consider enlisting the assistance of a therapist to help you understand, cope with, and emotionally heal from what happened.
II. Try to separate out expectation (e.g., “This thing will and must happen”) from preference (e.g. “I like and want this/I do not like or want this.”):
- Make a written list of your wants vs. nonnegotiable needs (within relationship, the workplace, home life, etc.). Then write down a separate list of your expectations for each important domain in your life, and compare this to your list of wants. Get clear about what your wants/needs versus expectations are. If you expect certain behaviors within a relationship, be as clear and concrete as you can about what these expectations are so that you can openly share these with your partner and determine what you both agree to. Vannier and O’Sullivan (2017) also suggest identifying any expectations that might be overly idealistic, unrealistic, and overly romantic, as these tend to undermine relationship health.
- Take ownership of what you want and responsibility for how you will respond to your wants being satisfied or not.
- For example, you may try reminding yourself, “I want this. My want is valid. My want does not have to happen, but if what I want does not happen, I will step back to more fully understand it, and make an informed decision about what to do or not do about it.” Try to give yourself time to sort out what might be helpful for allowing your desire to be met, and avoid jumping to conclusions. The key is to practice engaging a conscious, intentional decision-making process, rather than reflexive or reactive one.
- When communicating what you want within relationship, sometimes it is helpful to share what you want as an invitation, rather than as a demand. If what you want is connected to a core value, openly share about why this is important to you, without expecting your partner to share your exact same views. Invite curiosity, discussion, and learning more about one another. Invitation is less likely to be experienced as a heavy, restricting obligation by your partner, and creates the opportunity for them to meet your desires more whole-heartedly, and from a place of freedom of choice. Engage in a dialogue about what you both want to create together, how you want to define the relationship, what kind of boundaries or limits you both agree to, how you both would like to be treated. Arriving at agreements about what you’d like in your relationship often creates a different outcome than when either partner silently holds expectations and becomes resentful when they are not fulfilled. Remember that agreements are not necessarily fixed in stone, and may shift and evolve with time as both of you grow in who you are as individuals. Try to regularly stay in dialogue and communication about what you both want so that your relationship agreements can be updated as needed.
- As hard as it is to not get what you want, try to practice acceptance of the fact that regardless of how hard you try, sometimes you will get what we want, and sometimes you won't. Sometimes others will not meet your expectations, and you will not meet theirs. This is a normal part of life. You are not in complete control of outcomes. Leave some room for some desires not being fully met. Try to also be open to these desires being met in other ways then you thought they would. Stretch yourself to be flexible while staying true to your values.
- Sometimes our attitude influences whether we are likely to experience our desires as being fulfilled. When we are flexible, open to experience, and grateful for what comes our way, there is much more space for satisfaction and fulfillment. Try to avoid excessively fixating on what you think is "wrong” as this can shut you down emotionally and cause bitterness and discontent.
- Keep in mind that many times nonnegotiable needs are related to survival (i.e. needs related safety, security, critical resources, etc.). Try to identify an action plan in advance that you will use if a nonnegotiable need is not met (have a plan for staying safe, etc.) and access professional help if needed.
III. When reality had not lived up to expectations try to remember there are many possible explanations for what happened.
- When A does not lead to B, remember that A may also lead to C, D, etc. There are often many possible explanations for what happened, just as there are many possible ways that we can respond in different situations. Moreover, there are usually multiple ways of responding to the same situation. Most of the time, A does not only lead to B. Reminding yourself of this often and coming up with alternative explanations for why A may lead to B can help build cognitive flexibility, a skill that helps us become more psychologically resilient in the face of challenge.
- Check your expectations - where did these expectations come from? Is it possible that they are unrealistic? If you were expected to meet the expectations you hold others to, could you meet them?
- If you tend to experience unmet expectations as rules that have been “broken," try to remember that much of the time, others have a very different set of expectations or “rules” that may be equally valid as your own. Just because your partner’s behavior might be different than your own, does not automatically make your partner wrong (or right). We are all free to see the world through our own lens, and to be true to who we are (that doesn’t always mean our lens will in harmony with our partner's, of course, but is helpful to remind ourselves to steer away from excessively trying to control or change our partner). Within your relationship, check in with yourself about where it might to helpful to loosen your grip if you tend to fall into the enforcer of rules. Alternatively, if you tend to feel overburdened or suffocated by the weight of your partner’s expectations, be honest with yourself so that you can then be open with your partner about what needs to change. In either case, try and come together collaboratively to see how the two of you can better approach your relationship expectations, since neither party's expectations are necessarily "right" or "wrong," - just different. If a relationship agreement has been broken, try to compassionately address the broken agreement together, and understand why it happened and what to do about it to repair the rupture (e.g. to decide whether the agreement needs to be adjusted, or you or your partner’s behavior needs to be adjusted). Try to focus on the underlying purpose of strengthening the health of your relationship, rather than punishing one another for “breaking the rules.”
Learning by Doing
Hopefully some of these suggestions about how to shift your responding to expectations will help your relationship grow in awareness, depth, and resiliency. In general, bringing to light your beliefs about relationships gives you the chance to take a step back and non-judgmentally look at them from a different angle, so that you can be better equipped and able to respond with conscious intent, instead of reactivity. But be gentle with yourself and your partner -- these are challenging suggestions to put into place, and some may fit, where others may not be relevant or useful. Remember that so many of our ways of approaching the world and relationships are deeply ingrained and are take significant time, effort, and lots of learning through trial and error. Practice patience with yourself, and try to use relationship challenges as an opportunity to re-commit to using the strategies that help you to build a healthier relationship with your expectations, yourself, and your partner.
If you find yourself excessively mired by expectation or having difficulty shifting how your approach to expectation within relationships, it may be helpful to practice these skills in a warm, supportive environment, where you can get feedback and guidance from a trusted therapist.
Fitzpatrick, J., & Sollie, D. L. (1999). Unrealistic gendered and relationship-specific beliefs: Contributions to investments and commitment in dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 16, 852–867. doi:10.1177/0265407599166010
Vannier, S. A., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2017). Great expectations: Examining unmet romantic expectations and dating relationship outcomes using an investment model framework. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Advanced online publication.