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Great Expectations: How Unrealistic Optimism Hurts Romance

Expecting the best can cause some partners to behave their worst.

You are in the throes of a fantastic new relationship. You and your new paramour share both chemistry and compatibility. Your relationship seems natural and effortless. You expect the blissful status quo will last forever. Will it?

Before you continue your carefree stroll into the sunset, consider whether your perceived relational satisfaction and stability might cause you to take the relationship for granted, and behave accordingly.

Great Expectations Create Great Relationships

There is indeed such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy in the realm of romance. Consequently, in many cases, great expectations create great relationships. But not always. Sometimes, relationship overconfidence fuels relationship-damaging behavior.

Lemay and Venaglia in “Relationship Expectations and Relationship Quality” (2016) found some evidence that positive expectations in relationships can sometimes negatively impact healthy relational functioning.[i]

They begin by noting that previous research indicates that positive expectations in a relationship translate into positive behaviors. From persistence, to positive motivations, to greater forgiveness, research demonstrates how high relational aspirations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But they pushed further.

Regarding relational futures, they noted that despite positive biases, many relationships do not improve; they decline. They specifically cite research indicating that although most newlyweds believe their marriages will improve, many of them decline.

This depressing information is tempered, of course, by the fact that all relationships are different, and positive expectations clearly contribute to the success of many successful pairings. So what makes the difference?

When High Expectations Create Low Relational Quality

Lemay and Venaglia note that sometimes, positive relationship expectations can set the bar too high, leading to a “contrast effect” which produces a negative perception of a relationship that falls short.

They also recognize that positive relationship expectations may decrease problem-solving behavior, and less wiliness to engage in pro-relationship behavior, deeming such actions unnecessary.

In their analysis, Lemay and Venaglia make a comparison to the concept of unrealistic optimism, defined as the belief that one is likely to enjoy a future filled with positive events, and is less likely to encounter negative events. They note that prior research demonstrates that this mindset promotes risky behavior.

Research demonstrates how risk taking as a result of unrealistic optimism takes place in domains of health and wellness, where people may smoke and drink to excess without regard to the health consequences. Lemay and Venaglia opine that such behavior may also occur within interpersonal relationships, where people with overly positive expectations may perceive less risk in engaging in relationship-damaging behaviors, or refraining from problem solving.

On the other hand, some people are concerned that negative expectations within romantic relationships will be a self-fulfilling prophecy as well. Is that true?

Does Rejection Sensitivity Cause Rejection?

Some partners fear the worst. Even when a relationship seems to be going great, they tell themselves it will never last. Whether they just don´t believe they deserve to be happy, have a track record of failed relationships, or are prone to destructive behavior, they downplay their chances of relational success. According to research, when their relationships do fail, it is not due to their mindset alone-but to their behavior.

Downey et al. (1998) found support for the proposition that expecting rejection can cause rejection. This did not happen by chance, however, they discovered it was caused by the negative behavior of the partner who is expecting the worst.[ii]

They compared the relationships of couples who were high rejection-sensitive to those who were low rejection-sensitive. They found that following conflict, the partners of women who were high rejection-sensitive were more rejecting, a result they tied to the negative behavior of the women during the conflict. In other words, the women who anxiously expected to be rejected by romantic partners behaved in ways during relational conflict that prompted exactly that result.

The Wisdom of Wedding Vows

Taking much of this research together, it appears that whether one is expecting the best or expecting the worst, the key to relational success is positive, pro-relational behavior in all circumstances. There appears to be great wisdom in the phrasing of standard wedding vows, to cherish one´s partner “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” It appears that positive, loving behavior within relationships should transcend circumstances, thus permitting both parties to maintain quality relationships that will transcend (and exceed) great expectations.


[i]Edward P. Lemay, Jr., and Rachel B. Venaglia, ”Relationship Expectations and Relationship Quality,” Review of General Psychology 20, no. 1, 2016, 57-70.

[ii]Geraldine Downey, Antonio L. Freitas, Benjamin Michaelis, and Hala Khouri, ”The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Close Relatioships: Rejection Sensitivity and Rejection by Romantic Partners,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no. 2, 1998, 545-560.