How Realistic Are Your Expectations of Your Partner?

And, to what extent are they fueling anger in your relationship?

Posted Mar 03, 2018

As an anger management specialist it’s not at all unusual for me to hear clients exclaim, “I never get so angry in other situations–not at work, with my friends, or anywhere else. It seems I only get like this in my relationships.”

For many people, this makes perfect sense. An intimate relationship is difficult. It presents many challenges that shine a light on our vulnerabilities. The day-to-day interactions with a loved one forces us to reveal who we are, including our fears, self-doubt, shame, inconsistencies, and flaws that are common to being human. And, we may feel especially vulnerable in a close intimate relationship when we’ve not fully accepted ourselves and are not quite ready to reveal them. A close intimate relationship reminds us of these aspects of ourselves, while we may be able to elude them in other situations. As such, closeness may bring anxiety and tension, leading us to create distance sometimes by withdrawal and sometimes through anger.

These challenges are especially exacerbated when we cling to unrealistic expectations in our most loving relationships. Doing so invariably gives rise to anguish in the form of sadness, hurt, anxiety and anger. Additionally, rigidly holding on to these expectations often fosters an adversarial posture that undermines a greater commitment to the relationship. 

123 Stock Photo/wavebreakmediamicro
Source: 123 Stock Photo/wavebreakmediamicro

​Buddhist psychology emphasizes that pain associated with being human is inevitable–and suffering is not. Rather, suffering arises from our inflexible attachment, whether to relationships, money, ideas, or things that can lead to overwhelming suffering beyond the inherent pain that comes from being human.

Clinging to unrealistic expectations, with and without full awareness, reflects one form of such attachment. For example, one of my clients, Brian, reported ongoing resentment because his wife was always thirty to forty minutes late, whether going to a restaurant or attending a friend’s wedding. And yet, he was always expecting her to be on time.

I drew his attention to the fact that he retained this expectation even though she behaved this way throughout their fifteen years of marriage. He immediately chuckled. At that moment Brian recognized how his logical thinking had been hijacked by emotion, fueling his wish and hope that she be on time. He realized that emotion had overly influenced his holding on to his unrealistic expectation. This shift in his awareness made all the difference in better understanding how he contributed to his suffering and related anger. Additionally, we then explored other strategies that might help satisfy his desire.

Another client. Keith, shared anger about an ex who challenged every request he made for better communication regarding shared custody of their five-year-old.  He maintained expectations of her consideration and cooperation in spite of the fact that the absence of these same qualities very strongly contributed to his seeking the divorce in the first place. Keith had expected that his ex would rise to the occasion, as their interaction would now be limited to focusing solely on their child.

And yet another client, Sharon, endured suffering due to expectations she had of herself with regard to her partner. Her husband periodically experienced episodes of depression. Sharon, who was deeply compassionate, strived to help him as best she could. At the same time, her expectations that she should be able to “fix” him, led her to feel powerless, inadequate, and angry with herself. This was at times directed toward her husband when she felt he was not doing enough to help himself.

It was extremely difficult for her to accept that she was powerless in certain ways. She recognized that while she may be able to help by listening and even providing suggestions when he invited them, she could not fix his depression.   

Without full awareness, each of these individuals held on to expectations that might understandably seem reasonable, but were unrealistic when faced with the facts of the situation. Each had to engage in self-reflection in order to recognize the influences that informed their expectations that operated below their everyday awareness.

And each experienced that “chuckle”. It is an awakening moment to recognize a part of oneself that has gone unnoticed, kind of parallel universe existing within ourself. When put into words, it has often been stated as “Silly me!” “Who am I kidding–that is true!” and “Of course–that makes sense”.

How realistic are the expectations you have regarding your intimate relationship? Below is a description of facts regarding intimate relationships. I encourage you to take time to reflect on each one. How do your expectations align with them?

1.  Differences are to be expected in a loving relationship

This makes perfect sense. You each have a unique history that informs your unique personality and your expectations. So you may from time to time have differences in perspective, especially surrounding issues such as finances, how much time to spend together, alone, with friends and family, physical intimacy, parenting, and the tasks of maintaining a home.

2. A loving relationship requires work

Relationships require work in the form of consideration, discussion and a commitment to share and meet challenges together. Helping a relationship to thrive requires more than just depending on the energy of the initial attraction and love.

3. Individuals and relationships can change over time

To varying degree, each of us changes over time. We might change in our priorities, values, interests, and even our expectations regarding what we seek in a relationship. Faced by the challenges of change, the relationship requires ongoing attention, communication and nurturance for it to survive and thrive.

4. Relationships may not provide unconditional love

While many of us may unwittingly seek unconditional love, a desire that may be grounded in our infancy and early childhood. This period may be the only time when such love is truly essential for growth and thriving.

It’s one thing to expect an overriding commitment to love in a relationship. It’s another, for example, to expect that such love should overlook behaviors that are destructive to the individual or the relationship. Additionally, having an expectation of unconditional love is one sided and may ignore the realistic desires or needs of a partner-and even a relationship.

5. Relationships should not provide parenting

Naturally, a loving relationship entails sharing love and caring. However, treat your significant other as a parent or “parentize” him or her-treating them as a parent–and you will be setting yourself and your partner up for tremendous discord and anger.

Additionally, be attentive to any expectations you have that your partner should somehow make up for deficits of your own parents. While you may seek this, no amount of caring can genuinely make up for what the younger version of you did not receive. In fact, your mourning and making peace with your past can make you more available for both giving and receiving love.

6. Compromise is an essential in a loving relationship

Compromise is essential for resolving the inherent differences already cited. The adage “Pick your battles” can be a helpful guideline when setting your priorities. Of course you could argue about the correct way to load the dishwasher–but is it really necessary?

7. Your partner can’t read your mind

Maybe after many years he or she will get better at it–but don’t always depend on it. And, how is it that you may expect your partner to read your mind in some situations but be intensely afraid that he could do so on other occasions?

8. Your partner may or may not change as you wish he or she would

It’s especially helpful to be aware of expectations that a partner change.  You can always ask for change. You can ask, bribe, reward or plead with your partner to change. However, ultimately, he or she gets to decide if he or she desires to change.

Now that you’ve read these eight guidelines for expectations, I encourage you to read them again and go deeper. By this I mean sitting with the guideline. Play it over a few times in your mind. For example, you may readily react with agreement to the idea that you will have differences in your relationship. But ask yourself these questions. What differences am I most sensitive to? Which ones create anxiety for me? In what areas of our life do I really cling to the notion that we shouldn’t have differences?

Similarly, you may know that relationships require work but feel they shouldn’t. You may know that both of you may change but feel threatened by the slightest hint of it.  And, you may know that your partner’s love can’t fully make up for deficits in love and nurturance in childhood but nevertheless feel he or she should be able to do so.

Only by going deeper and more fully exploring yourself might you become aware of that parallel universe within you that forces you to rigidly hold on to expectations of your loved one (and yourself)–even when they are unrealistic.

Cultivating healthy anger requires that we be mindful to our expectations and to differentiate between those that are realistic and those that are not. This is especially true in a loving, intimate relationship. Being mindful to this challenge offers us a choice, the openness to identify alternative expectations and or mourn and let go of those that contribute to our suffering.  It takes courage, self-reflection and self-awareness to cultivate and maintain more realistic expectations of ourselves and a partner in our most loving relationships. And, yet, only by doing so can we experience a more meaningful and fulfilling relationship.