Should You Expect More From Your Relationship, or Less?

Lowering your standards might just improve your connection.

Posted May 10, 2016

racorn/Shutterstock
Source: racorn/Shutterstock

We all have expectations for our romantic relationships. But should we be raising or lowering those expectations? Is it better to set our standards high, so we’ll be motivated to work toward creating the best possible relationship? Or is it better to keep our expectations in check, so that we’re not disappointed when a relationship turns out to be less than perfect?

One useful framework for thinking about this question was proposed by Eli Finkel and colleagues: “The Suffocation Model.”1 They claim that modern marriage has become more demanding because we expect it to fulfill higher and higher psychological needs and we begin to "suffocate" while pursuing these “high-altitude” needs. In the past, marriage was based on practical considerations like raising a family, and meeting our need to be loved. But in recent decades, people have begun to expect more from marriage—in particular, many of us now expect that our relationships will also fulfill our esteem needs (self-esteem and self-expression) and our self-actualization needs, such as providing opportunities for personal growth and helping us be our best.

According to James McNulty, the suffocation model can be used to understand relationship standards because it stresses the importance of not only our expectations, but how they fit into the larger context of a relationship.2 Some couples, even if they’re highly motivated to improve their relationship, may still be unable to do so. Outside stressors, personality issues, and poor interpersonal skills can make it difficult for a relationship to thrive. So high expectations may motivate people to work harder on their relationships—but whether that motivation translates into actual improvements depends on a couple’s ability to make those changes happen. And as people expect more and more from their relationships, fewer couples may possess the necessary skills.

To test this hypothesis, McNulty studied 135 newlywed couples, who had been married for six months or less.2 The couples were filmed while having two discussions about a problem area in their marriage, and they completed two measures of relationship standards. In addition, each spouse completed measures of relationship problems and marital quality every six-to-eight months for approximately four years.

Spouses’ relationship standards were measured in two ways: First, they rated how important it was to them that their relationship met characteristics that would be considered “high-altitude"—the specific qualities assessed included honesty, commitment, caring, support, respect, excitement, challenge, fun, independence, and passion. They also rated how important 17 different relationship areas were to them, including communication, managing finances, sex, and independence.

A key goal of the research was to determine if couples’ ability to improve their relationship would determine if high expectations were a relationship’s savior or its undoing. These relationship skills were measured in two ways: One involved coding the recorded laboratory discussions of conflict. Coders watched the couples for signs of indirect negative behaviors, a type of conflict behavior that has been widely shown to be problematic. These behaviors include indirect blaming or commands that involve making assumptions about your partner’s mental state (e.g., “I know how you really feel about this”); hostile questions (e.g., “What did I tell you about this?”); avoiding responsibility (e.g., “I can’t help it, it’s just the way I am); and sarcasm.

Skills were also assessed by determining how severe a couple’s problems were at the start of their marriage. Couples were asked to rate the extent to which 17 different potential problem areas were already a problem in their relationship (e.g., money, in-laws, sex, drugs/alcohol). Even though relationship problems could be a result of high standards, they were taken to be an indicator of how well a couple was able to deal with problems at the start of their marriage, and thus as a reflection of relationship skills.

Are high expectations good for some couples and not others?

The results showed that for couples who had poor relationship skills—who engaged in indirect hostile behaviors during the conflict discussions, or had more severe problems to start with—high expectations were associated with poorer marital quality. For these couples, high expectations were difficult to meet, and they likely ended up disappointed and frustrated.

Couples with better relationship skills showed the opposite pattern: High expectations were associated with better marital quality. So for couples who have the ability to improve their relationship, high expectations can be a motivator to apply their skills and really improve the quality of their relationships.

What does this mean for couples who want to be happier?

It suggests two possible avenues: Couples can work on their skills, so that they are up to the task of fulfilling their expectations—and this is often the tactic recommended by relationship advice experts and couples’ therapists.

But this new research suggests that couples may also want to consider lowering their standards. That may sound like “giving up” on the relationship. But it doesn’t have to mean that.

Imagine this same advice applied to being more satisfied with your body: You could begin to strictly follow dietary recommendations for weight loss and perfect the exercises most likely to tone your problem areas. Developing these skills would bring your body more in line with your standards, and probably increase your body satisfaction. But you could also lower your standards and say, “It’s really not that important to me that I have six-pack abs.” And that attitude change would also ultimately make you more satisfied with your body.

This doesn’t mean that you should expect nothing out of your relationship; rather, you may want to consider shifting your standards so that you don’t expect your partner to meet all of your needs and completely fulfill you.

So ask yourself: Are you "suffocating" as you try to fulfill sky-high expectations in your relationship?

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior, and read more of her articles on Close Encounters.

References

1 Finkel, E. J., Hui, C. M., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2014). The suffocation of marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 1-41.

2 McNulty, J. K. (2016). Should spouses be demanding less from marriage? A contextual perspective on the implications of interpersonal standards. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 444-457.