3 Rules for Managing Expectations in a Relationship
Expectations are a part of relationships. We all have things that we need to feel loved, supported, safe, and known in our relationships. And our expectations for relationships are shaped by many factors, including how we grew up and what we learned about relationships, our own past relational experiences, and our personal needs and circumstances. In relationships, expectations are essential and missed expectations are often an area of conflict. When a partner does not meet our expectations, it can be easy to fill in the story: “Well, he doesn’t really love me,” or, “If she loved me, she would know what I needed.” These stories can exacerbate the pain of not having our needs met.
When I work with couples in therapy, expectations being missed is often one of the topics that come up most often as a source of conflict. However, the situation is often that the person who did not meet an expectation did not actually know there was such an expectation—or did not know that they were not meeting it. This ultimately causes hurt on both sides – with one partner feeling hurt because their need or want was not met and the other feeling like they had missed a mark that they did not even know was there.
That is why I often explore the following three rules of healthy expectations with couples. If you apply each to your own expectations in your relationship, and the expectations still get missed, it is fair to be upset with your partner. However, if these three ground rules are not in place, then you are at least partly responsible for not having your expectations met. Following these three rules sets relationships up for success – by allowing you and your partner to know each other’s expectations and to have a plan in place for how they can be met.
Rule #1: Expectations must be known. Sometimes we all have expectations that we just assume will happen, maybe because they have in the past, and therefore we do not even realize that they represent a need or want that we have. For example, maybe you come from a family that always hugs goodbye and so you expect that is how your partner will say goodbye to you. However, you may never have considered that some families do not hug to say goodbye and so it might not have been clear to you that this is an expectation that you have and that is important to you.
Rule #2: Expectations have to be communicated. Unless you or your loved ones have the secret superpower of being able to read minds, it is not fair for you to expect that others in your life will be able to anticipate your expectations. Everyone has different things that they need to feel safe, secure, and loved in relationships and that is okay. By taking the time to share with your partner what you need from them in your relationship, you are giving them the roadmap to love you most effectively, setting your partner, your relationship, and you up for success.
Rule #3: Expectations need to be negotiated. Just because we have a need or expectation does not mean that our partner must meet it exactly the way that we picture it. For example, maybe you have an expectation that your partner will want to hold your hand in public. However, your partner tends to get sweaty palms and holding hands makes them feel uncomfortable. In this situation, requiring your partner to hold your hand probably will not actually meet your need because your partner will be unhappy with the situation, thus not meeting your need of them wanting to hold your hand, and they will feel uncomfortable in meeting expectations that do not fit for them.
In such situations, it is helpful to try to identify the need underneath the expectation and why the initial solution might not work. Maybe holding hands is a way to know that your partner is proud to be with you and wants the world to know you are together. Or maybe it feels grounding to you and helps you to feel less stress in busy environments. By identifying these underlying needs, you can work together to help your partner find a way that honors both your needs. It might be that you find a way to have physical contact when walking together in public, like linking arms, which allows both your need of being acknowledged and connected in public and their need of not being uncomfortable to co-exist.