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Expectations Can Hurt Your Relationship

How important is it that your partner meet your romantic expectations?

What are your romantic expectations? We all have ideas about how our relationships should (or will) proceed — some are ideas we've nurtured since childhood, others have formed through media exposure, and still others we've absorbed through observing friends' and relatives' relationships form and dissolve.

How do the expectations we bring to relationships drive our relationship happiness?

To answer this question, we need to narrow down the kinds of expectations that are particularly relevant to our relationship health. Recent research has focused on the role of four important expectations specific to the romantic relationships (Vannier & O'Sullivan, 2017):

1. Connection: What expectations do you have about feelings of intimacy and understanding between you and your partner?

2. Passion: What are your expectations about your mutual attraction and desire for each other?

3. Destiny: Do you believe your relationship is pre-destined to succeed and/or that all relationships require hard work?

4. Immediacy: What are your beliefs about the pace of love? Do you expect that in healthy relationships people fall in love quickly or slowly?

As you can imagine, people's expectations vary. Some enter relationships expecting a lot of independence; others expect little time alone. These expectations are likely reflected by people's attachment styles, views of self, and views of others.

The problem with expectations seems to be less about what yours are and more about whether they are being met by your partner (at least in your judgment).

Vannier and O'Sullivan (2017) studied the expectations and relationship health of 296 young adults, largely in their 20s, who were in dating relationships. They calculated the extent to which people were suffering from unmet expectations by asking people about what their current relationship partners were doing, and then asking what those same people's ideal partners or alternative partners (i.e., future partners if this relationship ends) would be doing. They then looked at the discrepancy between those judgments.

The good news? Most people's partners were falling just shy of their ideal, and were better than a potential alternative partner. However, some people perceive a dramatic difference between how their relationship should be going and how it actually is, and unmet expectations don't seem to bode well for relationship health.

Unmet ideal expectations were inversely associated with all aspects of relationship health — satisfaction, investment, perception of quality alternatives, and commitment. In a model looking at the potential pathways of effect, unmet ideal expectations were shown to directly predict lower levels of relationship satisfaction and indirectly predict commitment.

Unmet expectations in a current relationship relative to an alternative relationship were particularly damaging. These were the strongest predictors of lower relationship satisfaction and less commitment. This makes sense: Ideal relationships are one thing, but if you believe you could actually find someone who could meet your expectations better than your current partner, then your current relationship isn't on solid footing.

Our feelings about our relationships matter, in that they affect our behaviors, our perceptions of our partner, and, ultimately, the stability of our relationships. This research gives us new insight into how we form feelings about our relationships: We think about our expectations and how well our partners meet those expectations.

So what can you do if your romantic expectations are going unmet? The solution isn't necessarily to change your expectations. It's important to have healthy expectations that reflect your own worth and guide you toward the interdependence that allows for intimate connection. It might be an opportunity for conversation between you and your partner about what is and isn't working, to see if your relationship has the potential to move closer to (both) your expectations. Also, conversations with supportive others outside of your relationship may help you ensure that your expectations are reasonable — not too high, but also not too low.

Facebook image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock


Vannier, S. A., & O’Sullivan, L. F. (2017). Great expectations: Examining unmet romantic expectations and dating relationship outcomes using an investment model framework. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Advanced online publication.

More from Theresa E. DiDonato Ph.D.
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