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How Unspoken Expectations Ruin Relationships

The best expectations are none at all.

Source: Pixabay

Anne knew Jake has been under a lot of stress lately, so she decided to surprise him by making one of his favorite dinners. But for all her labor, all she got back from Jake was a mumbled, "thanks for making dinner" and little else. Anne was disappointed and hurt.

Look up the word "expectation" in a dictionary and you’ll find two definitions. The first is about expectations that signify your belief about what someone should do. You expect your kids to clean their rooms once a week or not hit each other. You expect your partner to be reliable—pay the electric bill when he says he will—or be honest or faithful. In real life, such expectations are like ground rules that create the foundation for a relationship and are usually openly talked about.

But the other definition is the belief that something will happen in the future. You plan to go on vacation and have a good time, or you work hard on your job and you’ll get a promotion. This is about the future, usually all inside your head, and can border on fantasy. The expected good-time vacation may be a bust because a hurricane comes along and sabotages your plans. You don’t get the promotion because the company goes under, or your boss, unbeknownst to you, always planned on promoting his son instead.

These are the expectations that can undermine relationships and is where Anne gets in trouble. She has an image of what she hopes will happen but unlike the cleaning of the rooms, the paying of the electric bill, it goes unspoken. It’s made all the worse if her expectation is part and parcel of a larger vision—that dinner, for example, will naturally lead to a romantic evening ending in sex. This is not only all in her head, but the outcome is dependent on a future that she can’t control, and a person she can’t control, namely Jake.

But it doesn't stop there. It's easy for such failed expectations to accumulate over time, leading to resentments that can undermine even the strongest relationships.

The way out

The way out of this setup for disappointment and resentment is a two-step process:

1. Clearly state your expectations.

Rather than keeping her plans to herself, Anne could call Jake on his lunch hour and let him know what she is planning on making his favorite dinner because she knows he’s been stressed, as well as share her larger vision for the evening. Knowing what Anne has in mind gives Jake a heads up so he can mentally prepare for the evening ahead, and even give him an opportunity to have a say—that though he appreciates the thought, he’s probably going to be running late at work, and tomorrow night would be better.

You can’t overdo this broadcasting of expectations, even for small things. Worried about getting out the door in time to make the movie? State what time you want to leave for the movie well before the fact so you can negotiate a time that works for both of you.

2. Make independent decisions.

Rather than making her happiness dependent on Jake’s reaction and the outcome of the evening, Anne would do better deciding whether or not she wants to make the dinner independently of what may happen next. If she does—because she'll feel good doing something nice for Jake, or because she simply feels like cooking or trying out a new recipe—she avoids setting herself up for disappointment. Better yet, she is living in the moment, rather than trying to live in a future that she can’t control.

And this, perhaps, is the best way to live—seeing each moment at its own, each decision as self-contained, based on the needs and wants in the here and now, free of expectations. This, as the Buddhists say, is a good recipe for happiness.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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