When I look back over my life, there are inevitable areas of regret. Why on…
Do you remember when you were a child, and you thought about who the perfect partner would be? Whether it was the face of your favorite pop star, the velvet voice of your favorite movie star, the heroism and gentleness of a character in your favorite book, there were ideas of what a “perfect” partner would be. As we grow up, those ideas morph and grow with us, but they never fully leave, and the result is a cardboard cutout of who we want our partners to be. Oftentimes, we drop the expectation that they have the perfect hair and body… and even allow for some idiosyncrasies that we find quirky and amusing, but there are just some things that a partner HAS to be… right?
Well, having an idea of who you want your partner to be before you get into relationship is absolutely fine. Everyone has experienced the honeymoon phase of relationship where the person you are with seems absolutely perfect, and those things that you dislike are deemed quirky and cute. It’s only after that initial phase, when the newness has worn off, and you see your partner as they truly are… that the problems begin.
It isn’t so much that they don’t look the way you expect them to… you’ve gotten used to that. It isn’t even that they are abusive or dismissive; you wouldn’t have tolerated that. It’s the little things, the expectations of behavior that undermine the very foundation of our relationships and chip away at our happiness.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
William Shakespeare, (that timeless relationship guru), said that “Expectation is the root of all heartache.”
He wasn’t wrong.
When we hold expectations that our partners will, for example “anticipate our needs, or act in ways that were traditional in our family of origin,” we are setting our relationship up for pain at the least, and failure at the most. Oftentimes the expectation of gender roles can also play a huge part in building resentment, as stereotypical gender role expectation can unconsciously wreak havoc. We all have unspoken expectations of behavior, such as perhaps a partner knowing that if they say a particular thing, in a particular way, that we will become upset. However, when they cannot or do not meet that expectation in the ways in which we imagine, we become disappointed, and sometimes even entertain the painful idea that they don’t love us enough. In short, having expectations of your partner leads to the slow erosion of relationship as resentment and disappointment builds.
In some cases, we may even ask a partner to do a certain thing because we enjoy or appreciate it, and hold the expectation that they do it in a certain way, and when it is not done in the way we expect, we become angry and bitter “See…they don’t care about me of they would have done A,B, or C in that way instead of the way they did. Look how they disregarded my feelings! “These thoughts just reinforces the idea that not meeting our expectations ultimately means that we are not loved, or that our partners are just unloving. A perfect example of how we can respond when others do not meet our expectations is when a parent asks a child who is playing a videogame, or talking to a friend, to take out the garbage, or clean the dishes. In many cases the child will opt to complete the level or are done their conversation, before complying with their parent’s request. How often have you seen (or even experienced) the parent becoming immediately angry because their expectation that the child stop what they were doing and complete the task immediately, was not met. They may then hold the belief that their child doesn’t respect them and feel hurt and angry because the child did not meet their expectation of behavior in the way that they expected them to.
In the same way, we can expect our partners to behave a certain way towards us… sometimes without ever having had a conversation about those expectations, and many times without allowing for the unique way in which that person will fulfill the request. Oftentimes if it doesn’t look like what we envision, then it doesn’t count, because the disappointment we feel in not receiving the experience in exactly the way we expected it, is too great to overcome.
In this way, expectations can sabotage relational happiness.
Now, having said all of that, the thought of lowering or even eradicating expectation in relationship might feel odd, or even impossible. But it isn’t as hard as it sounds.
What helps is to hold in your mind the idea that we have control in only one thing, at any given time…our own behavior. That is all. Thus, when we ask a partner for something we need, whether emotionally or behaviorally, we have to let go of any expectations on how or even if the other person will choose to fulfill that need, and simply notice and celebrate any attempts to meet our needs in the ways that they are able. We need to allow space for the other person to think, feel and react in ways that are unique to them, and not expect that they will say or do things the way in which we want, hope, or expect that they will. Basically, we have to allow other people to be themselves, rather than the “idea” of them that we hold in our imaginations. We also have to be careful to communicate our needs to our partners so that they have an opportunity to attempt to meet them. Unspoken expectations can be particularly damaging.
When we let go of expectation completely, we will often find ourselves in the space of gratitude and acceptance for what is, rather than anger and disappointment due to not getting what we expected. Gratitude and acceptance will always lead to more resilient, and happier relationships in the long run; so the active, everyday practice of consciously lowering or eradicating expectation will absolutely bring about happier, healthier partnerships.
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Sassy’s Blog is named for the very astute cat of WRC’s Clinical Director and Counselor Kai Qualls, LPC, CCATP. The theme of the Blog is Resilience, which is especially timely given our shared uncertainty during these times. We hope you will enjoy and benefit from Sassy’s Blog, this month written by Clinical Director Kai Qualls, LPC, CCATP.