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Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke Ph.D.

Are lowered expectations the key to happiness?

Sometimes, everyone's expectations are exceeded. But rarely.

The other night at the local custard shop, my husband and I saw two beaming young parents place a banana split in front of their little girl. The expression on her face, one of awe and pure joy, would have been enough to meet any parent's expectations. But then, this adorably unassuming child said two words: "For me?" You know, I got a little choked up, seeing this brief and shining moment in our mean old world. Sometimes, everyone's expectations are exceeded. But rarely.

Managing expectations

For all of us, managing expectations is key to happiness, peace of mind, relationship and life satisfaction. This skill does not come easily, though. We are naturally self-centered and want what we want. Also, we are bombarded from every direction with troublesome messages:

From the overly optimistic - Don't settle. Everybody is a rock star! Positive thinkers attract good things to themselves.

To the intentionally discouraging - Don't get your hopes up. That will never change. Who do you think you are?

Reasonable v. realistic expectations

Most everyone believes that their expectations are reasonable. It is reasonable, of course, to expect your teenager to go to school, clean her room, honor curfew, and keep her stash of pot away from your home. Who wouldn't agree with that? Well, maybe, your teenager, for one.

It is reasonable, of course, to expect your spouse to hang onto his job, do his share of housework, and go along to your family's annual 4th of July, multi-generational picnic. Who wouldn't agree with that? Well, maybe, your spouse, for one.

Clinging to reasonable yet consistently unmet expectations rarely turns out well. Even though your expectation seems perfectly reasonable to you as well as to everyone you've polled, it turns out to be unrealistic. When your spouse or teenager resists your completely reasonable expectation, it's time to ask yourself, "Given the situation here, what is realistic?"

Lowering expectations?

Most everyone gets touchy about the idea of lowering expectations. We deserve the best, after all. So, here's a new way of thinking about this: Call it choosing realistic expectations.

In most situations, we are up against not only a conflict between our values and someone else's but also a conflict between two of our own deeply held values. For example, we value obedience in children and teamwork between spouses and we also value a healthy emotional connection with children and spouses. When particular expectations are not shared by our teenager or spouse, we are faced with a choice.

Maintaining healthy emotional connection is, for most of us, the more important value. Since neither healthy emotional connection nor happiness are obtained by demanding our own special brand of obedience or teamwork, we benefit by adopting realistic expectations. Of course, nothing is ever simple and choosing to honor emotional connection may lead to yet another intrapersonal values conflict.

For example, which is more important? Maintaining healthy emotional connection or setting appropriate limits with users and abusers? Luckily, when it comes to users and abusers, it is clear that setting appropriate limits is essential to maintaining healthy emotional connection.

In most situations, no one is being used or abused. There are simply two people being equally stubborn. Readers of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person already know that the way out of the quagmire is taking a self-responsible approach. See previous posts: The four keys to responding constructively and not giving in; How to not take it personally; Walking the path alone:Self-responsible spouse

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About the Author

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person.