Are your Expectations Killing or Helping your Relationships?

Deciding which expectations should stay and which should go may solve relationship woes

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

“Expectations? Well, I expect long 1am talks about philosophy, roses every Wednesday, and secret French love notes snuck in my handbag each day,” said 20 year old Carly. She was about to spend her junior year in Paris, breathlessly awaiting a Parisian lover to walk out of her daydreams and take her into his arms.

I was once Carly.

Carly’s mother tried not to roll her eyes. “I just want respect and the garbage taken out,” she muttered.

I am now like Carly’s mother.

My romantic tendencies have been tempered with basic realities needed to survive once jobs, kids and mortgage payments all collectively scream for attention.

They start forming in childhood when we watch our parents interact. Then societal norms, early relationships, and media continue to shape them. In contemporary times, much has been written about the negative consequences of princess fairytales on young girls, claiming such stories teach young girls to expect a Prince Charming to “save” them. Media showing more assertive women (Like in Frozen) or women in equal partnerships have been praised because they help foster a different set of expectations…especially for oneself.

But…should we have expectations at all?

“Expectations just lead to disappointment,” finger wagging grandmothers tell us.

“She just wanted too much,” say the San Francisco bachelors that break up with their engagement focused girlfriends.

“Maybe you should lower your expectations,” a therapist once told me.

Yet it’s important to have some expectations. Expectations define how we want to be treated and create structure in our lives. They dictate what we should strive for, what we should accept, or what we need to move away from.

We all have base expectations like “safety.” Often other expectations start to pile on top of our base ones, creating an expectation hierarchy of needs. Note that some “needs” will need to be reassessed once a partnership is entered.

source: heidi isern

Rather than say we shouldn’t have any, perhaps we should assess the quantity and reasonableness of expectations we have. If you have too many expectations, you’re a princess. Too few, you have no self worth.

After examining them all we should ask ourselves which expectations are sacred, which are flexible, and, if our expectations are misaligned with our partners, determine how we might work together to adjust them.

Consistently met expectations (like sharing chores) create dependencies. Dependencies are the glue that holds our communities together. Communities that rely on each other are much stronger. I wrote about that topic, comparing rich independent San Francisco to my neighborhood in Truckee where everyone helped each other. Afterwards, my inbox was flooded with people wishing they had a more mountain-like community. People like to be needed (it’s gives them a sense of value/worth) and also appreciate things being done for them (as it often builds trust and intimacy).

Of course if codependency frightens you, you could re-evaluate the relationship you want to have and define what you can provide for yourself. i.e. instead of expecting someone else to give you roses every Wednesday could you just purchase yourself tulips once a month?

Young hot-blooded Carly has now left for Paris. I’m creating my own hierarchy of needs. After some musing, I decided to stop my list of expectations for someone else. I first needed to define the ones I have for myself.

Luckily, my place of employment helped me.

In a leadership coaching class at my firm, we were given a deck of 52 “value” cards. Things like “integrity” ‘Humor” “Wealth and “Family” were among them. Though a structured shuffling exercise we paired down the deck to 6 unique core values that defined us and the expectations we hold for ourselves.

source: heidi isern

Interestingly, humor wasn’t among mine like I thought it would be. “Compassion” took its place. In redefining the expectations I had for myself, I was redefining the expectations I had for all my relationships both work and personal. I was also honing the path for the life I want to lead.

Expectations are important. But before we have them for someone else, we need to really drill down into what we have for ourselves. Then we can co-create an expectation hierarchy of needs together.

“When someone sees the same people every day, as had happened with him at the seminary, they wind up becoming a part of that person’s life. And then they want the person to change. If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker. let me help you tell your story. Published here, there and elsewhere across the world. @hisern /

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