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Optimism

Are Your Relationship Expectations Too High?

When having high expectations can help, and when they can hurt.

Key points

  • People tend to hold optimistic expectations for their relationships.
  • Optimistic expectations can be good for relationships, such as helping couples behave more positively towards each other.
  • There are times when optimistic expectations are harmful, such as when expectations aren't met or they give a false sense of security.
  • Whether expectations are helpful or hurtful might depend on the type of expectation.
MabelAmber/Pixabay
Source: MabelAmber/Pixabay

We all hold expectations for our relationships—you have expectations, for example, about how long your relationship will last, how well your partner will treat you, how well they’ll treat your family and friends, how often you’ll fight, how often you’ll have sex (and whether you’ll have sex after you fight).

Optimistic expectations increase commitment and ease tension

In general, people tend to hold optimistic expectations for their relationships, and those optimistic expectations can be a good thing. In one study of long-distance relationships, Helgeson (1994) found that couples were more likely to stay together over the course of a year if they had more optimistic expectations for their relationship.

Optimistic expectations can also help buffer against tension in daily life. Schoebi and colleagues (2012) found that people who reported at the end of the workday that they expected their partner to be in a good mood that evening viewed their interactions with their partner more positively that evening after they’d arrived home from work, even if their partner was not in as good of a mood as they’d expected. In another study of couples in the laboratory, people who expected their partner to understand them during a conversation about a source of conflict in their relationship behaved more positively toward their partner during the conversation. And it turns out that their expectations mattered more than their partner’s actual level of understanding (Sanford, 2006).

Optimistic expectations can also be unrealistic

When expectations aren’t met, this expectancy violation can also be damaging. For example, McNulty and Karney (2004) found that among couples who were already experiencing problems, more optimistic expectations actually predicted steeper declines in relationship satisfaction over four years. Why? The idea is that they had expectations that weren’t met, which was disappointing.

But the type of expectations might also matter—in a 2013 study by Neff and Geers, people who were generally optimistic were more satisfied in their relationships, but people who were specifically optimistic about their relationship were not. Again, why? The idea here is that their optimism about the relationship creates both unrealistic expectations and a false sense of security about the relationship, making people less motivated to work on their relationship. These findings emerged especially for couples who experienced more conflict in their relationships.

I’ve also written about how there are times when meeting expectations can actually predict lower satisfaction, such as when you expect your partner to sacrifice for you, and they do.

Evaluate your expectations to improve your relationship

One thing I’ve noticed with the research showing that optimistic expectations are problematic is that the expectations are often ones that will be hard to meet. For example, people are asked to rate their agreement with statements such as, “I expect my partner and I will always communicate well,” “I expect my sexual relationship with my partner will always be satisfying,” and “I expect my partner and I will always agree about family issues.”

When seeing the items, it makes sense that people who hold these expectations are likely to be disappointed. It also makes sense that if you have these types of expectations you might not work as hard on your relationship, since you expect that things will always go well.

On the other hand, the research I reviewed showing the benefits of optimistic expectations tend to focus on more specific expectations, such as a partner’s good mood that day or their level of understanding during a conflict.

If you take the time to evaluate your expectations, try thinking about whether it is reasonable to meet those expectations and how you will feel if they are not met. Of course, if your expectations are reasonable and realistic—you expect your partner to contribute to childcare when you become parents, for example—having those expectations violated is likely to be disappointing but the answer isn't to just lower them. Instead, this might be a situation where anger is a good thing.

It may also be helpful to think about how you will feel if your expectations are met—meeting expectations can be a lackluster event, which means we can take it for granted. If you expect you and your partner will be affectionate with each other every day, and you are, try some mental tricks to help you appreciate this good thing in your relationship.

References

Helgeson, V. S. (1994). The effects of self‐beliefs and relationship beliefs on adjustment to a relationship stressor. Personal Relationships, 1(3), 241-258.

Mcnulty, J. K., & Karney, B. R. (2004). Positive expectations in the early years of marriage: Should couples expect the best or brace for the worst. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(5), 729–743.

Neff, L. A., & Geers, A. L. (2013). Optimistic expectations in early marriage: A resource or vulnerability for adaptive relationship functioning? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(1), 38–60.

Sanford, K. (2006). Communication during marital conflict: When couples alter their appraisal, they change their behavior. Journal of Family Psychology, 20(2), 256–265.

Schoebi, D., Perrez, M., & Bradbury, T. N. (2012). Expectancy effects on marital interaction: Rejection sensitivity as a critical moderator. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(5), 709.

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