Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Expectations in Relationships: The Flip Side of Obligations

What should you expect from your partner?

In a previous post, I wrote that partners may feel certain obligations to each other as part of their relationship, but they shouldn't feel too much like obligations, in the sense that they feel separate from or on top on the relationship itself. If they do, that signals a problem in the relationship, because one or both partners may be taking an external view to the relationship, as if viewing it from outside of it and seeing its "limitations" and "requirements" as binding, rather than an internal view in which the partners fulfill each other's needs out of love and appreciation for each other and for their relationship. In brief, you should want to do things for your partner rather than feel you have to.

Let's look at this from another angle: What about expectations in a relationship? In a sense, expectations are the flipside of obligations; if someone has an obligation towards you, you usually have an expectation that that obligation will be fulfilled. Again, this is similar to rights language in moral or legal philosophy; if Bob has a firm duty towards Barbara, then Barbara has a right (or claim) to have that duty fulfilled. For example, if Bob has a duty not to steal from Barbar, then Barbara has a right not to be stolen from by Bob; if Barbara has a duty to help Bob (perhaps based on a promise or other commitment), Bob has a claim on Barbara's assistance.

Now if Bob and Barbara (or Bob and Bill, or Barbara and Betty) are romantically involved, Bob may form expectations regarding Barbara based on obligations she has toward Bob (and vice versa). Ideally, these expectations—like obligations—arise naturally out of the nature of the relationship and the partners' understanding (hopefully discussed between them) of where the relationship is. For instance, Bob shouldn't expect complete openness and honesty, or frequent PDA or sexual contact, if the relationship has not progressed far enough for these to become reasonable expectations. And if the relationship has progressed far enough to generate expectations of those things, that should be based on a mutual understanding of the relationship—not necessarily spoken, but clearly understood by both persons.

Of course, partners may come to relationships from different places in their lives. It is particularly dangerous when someone bases expectations for a current relationship, not on the history of that relationship, but rather on experiences from a past one. For example, if you and your ex kissed every time you passed each other, you shouldn't automatically assume your new partner will want to do the same. This goes for negative expectations as well; if your ex cheated on you, for instance, don't assume or expect your new partner to follow suit. Every new partner and every new relationship is fresh and unique, a story waiting to be written. Certainly, some things may be the same—after all, you chose them both for some reason, hopefully a good one—but many things will be different as well.

As with obligations, an ideal relationship does not involve expectations that are not implied in the relationship itself; in other words, partners in an affectionate relationships can expect love and support, partners in a physical relationship can expect a certain amount of sexual activity, and so on. (I don't mean to imply these two are mutually exclusive, of course!) The point is that these expectations should arise naturally, and should rarely be mentioned as such. If you feel you have to say the words, "I expected you to...," there's something wrong—either your partner didn't realize you had that expectation, which means communication (spoken or unspoken) broke down somewhere, or your partner no longer wants to fulfull an obligation he or she once did happily. Obviously, neither is good for a relationship, and it's probably time to have a good talk between the two of you.

As I've said before, personally I dislike obligations or expectations in relationships. I don't want the person I'm wish to feel she "has" to do certain things for me; I want her to do the things she wants to do out of her feelings for me, as I would like to do for her. If you have to ask your partner for something (or not to do something), you never know if he or she does it (or not) just because you asked, or because he or she really wanted to do it. Ideally, partners will feel free to do what they watn to do, including things they want to do for each other, and if their feelings are strong and they are truly compatible, their actions will be as well.

Looking at it a different way, what your partner does or doesn't do without asking him or her to tells you a lot about that person, good or bad. For instance, if you have to say to your partner, "I have a right to know" something, consider why he or she didn't tell you already and why you had to bring it up. (The fact that you expect to know this may also reveal something about you!)

This may seem naive and overly romantic, and few couples will actually achieve this blissful harmony, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for it—isn't that the dream? 

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Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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