Managing Relationship Expectations

Family and relationships have been shown to be the biggest factor in our happiness. At the same time, relationship expectations cause us the most stress and unhappiness. How do we manage relationships expectations for more joyful relationships?

The three key steps to managing relationship expectations are: identifying these expectations, communicating them to the other party, and seeking agreement.

1. Identifying relationship expectations

Upon returning home after living overseas for three years, my mother got very upset when I came home after midnight. I incredulously pointed out that she had trusted me enough to let me live overseas where I could basically do anything I wanted. It was hard for me to believe that after that degree of independence, I was still expected to obey a curfew when I returned home!

In hindsight, we both had expectations that the other was unaware of. She expected things to be the same as they were before I left home. I expected to continue my independent lifestyle. These unspoken expectations resulted in a whole night of worry for her, and lost sleep for both of us.

How to identify relationship expectations

The problem with relationship expectations is that we are often not aware we have them. I didn’t return home thinking “I expect to have full independence now, the way I had for the past three years.” Neither did my mother tell herself “I expect that all the ground rules still hold.” These expectations just hovered under the surface until a specific event forced us to realise we had them.

It may be near impossible to identify every expectation we have of every relationship in our lives. Still, we can try to identify as many as we can for the most important relationships. This is especially important for relationships that are already under strain.

Make a list of your relationship expectations

Make a list of all the expectations you have of this relationship or person. It helps to start each sentence with “I expect…” This reinforces the fact that expectations don’t exist out there, but only in our minds. It also helps us take responsibility for our relationship expectations.

Making this list can be quite a wake up call, as we usually don’t realise how many expectations we have of a person. Seeing our list in writing can also help us to get rid of the unrealistic expectations, so that we can focus on dealing with the those that are most important.

2. Communicating relationship expectations

There are two things to bear in mind when communicating relationship expectations. Firstly,  focus only on the most important so we don’t overwhelm the other person. Secondly, choose the right time.

Focus on the most important

Ideally we should communicate only the single most important expectation we have and deal with that. However, it may be tiresome to have this conversation about relationship expectations several times, so focusing on the most important three at one go is a good compromise.

It may be a good idea to bring up the most important expectation first. The expectation “I expect you to be faithful” for example will come across as much more reasonable than “I expect you to be punctual for dinner every day.” Discussions are always easier when the other party perceives us to be reasonable!

Choose the right time

Many of us communicate our relationship expectations just after these expectations are not met. For example, if your husband is late home for dinner, you communicate your expectations  for his punctuality by being upset when he gets home. It’s hard to communicate effectively when you’re upset. Also, there’s nothing he can do right now to right the situation.

Whenever possible, communicate the expectation BEFORE there is a chance to fail to meet it. Ask your husband to be on time for dinner when saying goodbye in the morning. Discuss your expectations about fidelity before getting into a committed relationship. Discuss ground rules with your children before implementing these.

3. Seeking agreement on relationship expectations

An expectation that is not identified nor communicated remains an expectation. Once an expectation is communicated, however, there is a chance of reaching agreement. It is crucial that in seeking agreement, we respect the other person’s right to not agree.

Reaching agreement

If the other person is aware of your relationship expectations and accepts these are reasonable, there is a high chance of reaching agreement. Present your expectation in as reasonable a way as possible.

For example: “I put a lot of effort into preparing a delicious meal for us everyday. When you are late, the food goes cold and you don’t get to experience what I worked so hard to achieve. This makes me feel unappreciated, even though I know you don’t mean to make me feel this way when you are late.” This comes across as much more reasonable than “I expect you to be on time” doesn’t it?

If he agrees that he will try to be punctual for dinner, the onus has shifted to him to keep his agreement. He is now aware of your expectation, accepts it as reasonable, and has taken responsibility for what he agreed to. On your part,  trust that he will do his best and accept that the times when he is late are due to factors outside his control.

When agreement cannot be reached

The other person may not agree to our relationship expectations for two reasons: they find the expectation unreasonable, or they cannot commit to meeting it. When there is no agreement, your expectation remains an expectation. You will then have to decide what to do about it.

If the relationship expectation is non-negotiable, for example you expect him to remain faithful and he hums and haws without promising, then you may have to walk away from the relationship. It’s difficult, but not as bad as dealing with the broken pieces down the road.

If the expectation is not an absolute must, consider letting go of the expectation. This is easier if you can see how it may be unrealistic from the other person’s point of view.

What are YOUR relationship expectations?

Take a moment to write these down or at least make a mental note. Start by identifying just one, and decide whether you want to communicate this and how. Remember, relationships are tricky and expectations are a sensitive issue, so don’t expect yourself to deal with it perfectly the first time. For people who are dear to you though, learning to manage relationship expectations can save a lot of heartache.

Further reading

Gretchen Rubin writes about how she manages relationship expectations by giving herself ‘gold stars’. Instead of expecting to receive praise and appreciation from her partner, she has learnt to give herself what she needs. I like her simple yet powerful ‘gold star’ analogy.

Sometimes when we have many relationship expectations, it’s because we crave love from others to make up for not loving ourselves enough. Evelyn Lim has a great post about how to love yourself.

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