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How Expectations Are Shaping Your Relationship

Research shows that if you expect help, you might not appreciate it.

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How strongly do you agree with the following statements: “In general, sacrificing is a necessary component of close relationships” and “It is normal to engage in sacrifices in close relationships”?

One of the perks of being in a romantic relationship is having someone who can provide support and help when you need it. In healthy relationships, people help each other out, they’re supportive when the other person is stressed or upset, and they accommodate each other’s needs by sacrificing or compromising. If you’ve come to expect these things from your partner, you’re not alone. After all, if you can’t count on your partner to be there for you when you need them, what does that mean?

But it turns out, these expectations may be a double-edged sword. Being able to expect your partner to forgo concert plans when you come home on a Friday and are too tired to do anything more than put on a pair of PJs and a Netflix movie likely means that you are part of a relationship in which you support and sacrifice for each other. But according to recent research, it also means that you are less likely to appreciate your partner’s sacrifice, and may be less satisfied with your relationship as a result.

A team of close relationships researchers in the Netherlands tracked 126 couples for 8 days. Each day, partners reported on any sacrifices they made (giving up something they wanted in order to accommodate their partner), as well as how grateful they were to their partner, how much they respected their partner, and how satisfied they were with their relationship. Everyone in the study also answered four questions about their expectations of sacrifice, including the two listed at the top of this post (the other two were: “People need to sacrifice to preserve a healthy relationship” and “I expect my partner to sacrifice in our relationship”).

When the authors looked at how expectations shaped reactions to sacrifice, they found that people were more grateful, had more respect for their partners, and were more satisfied with their relationships on days when they perceived their partner had sacrificed for them, but much more so if they had low expectations of sacrifice. People who had high expectations of sacrifice were much less moved by the sacrifice, in that they didn’t show the same increases in gratitude, respect, and satisfaction on days when they perceived their partner as having sacrificed for them compared to days without a sacrifice.

We can’t help but come to expect help, support, and sacrifice from our partners to some extent (though this research suggests that some people may expect these more than others). After all, a supportive partner is one hallmark of a good relationship. But these expectations may also dampen our ability to appreciate when our partners do engage in these behaviors. Once we come to expect sacrifice from our partners, we no longer see their sacrifices in quite the same positive light.

These findings are in line with a theory I’ve long held—expectations kill gratitude. When I give talks on gratitude, I have a favorite example I use to illustrate this point: My parents paid for me to go to college. Although I don’t actually know the exact sum, because I never bothered to ask, this likely amounted to close to $100,000 when all was said and done. And my gratitude towards them for this immensely generous act? Minimal. I know I said thanks and gave them big hugs when I graduated, but they had always led me to expect that they would pay for college so I didn’t appreciate it in the same way I might have if I hadn’t expected it from them.

I try to imagine how I would have reacted if some aunt of mine had surprised me right before college and told me that she was going to pay when I had expected to be taking out loans and working to pay for it. I would have been beyond grateful, doing everything I could to express my gratitude to her throughout those four years. I would never have felt able to fully repay her for her generous and kind act. And here’s the kicker—I do these mental tricks in my mind to try to make myself more grateful for my parents, because I know what they did was a very generous act, but it doesn’t completely work. Those expectations are just so strong that I can’t overcome them completely.

So what do you do? It’s hard not to come to expect behaviors that happen frequently, we’re built to adapt. That’s why we need to remind ourselves to thank our partners for doing their job. You might not be able to get past the expectations completely, but there are some mental tricks that could help increase your gratitude and respect, such as imagining that you were in a relationship with a partner who never engaged in these types of positive behaviors, or setting up a routine of looking for something you appreciate about your partner each day. You can also remember to express your thanks, even for things you expect, so that your expectations don’t prevent your partner from missing out on a moment of feeling appreciated.

If you don’t thank your partner for their sacrifices, it’s possible that without that positive reinforcement, your partner may find themselves less eager to sacrifice for you in the future. Also, try talking with your partner about their expectations of sacrifice and support—in this study, the researchers found a very weak correlation between partners’ expectations (r = .11). This means that you might expect sacrifices from your partner while they have no such expectation from you. Probably a good thing to know so that you’re both on the same page! And if your partner doesn’t thank you for your sacrifices quite as much as you think they should, try to keep in mind that they may be falling prey to the same expectations.

More on sacrifice

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Zoppolat, G., Visserman, M. L., & Righetti, F. (2019). A nice surprise: Sacrifice expectations and partner appreciation in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 026540751986714.

More from Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
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