Expectations are an important part of any relationship. They help us set a baseline for the type of treatment that’s appropriate. It’s healthy, for instance, to expect our partners to love, respect, and support us, and for our partners to expect the same from us. Not so healthy would be to expect our partner to be a mind-reader.
But expectations can be tough to create. What’s asking too much? What’s not enough? What’s unrealistic? It’s tricky, and they constantly should be reaffirmed. In terms of relationship expectations, Dr. John Gottman suggests couples should strive for what he’s dubbed the “good enough” marriage. By that he means they should expect a safe relationship that has love, care, affection and loyalty but not be so unrealistic as to expect only sunny days and zero conflicts. It’s important too, as Professor Eli Finkel previously told Fatherly, to not expect your partner to be all things for you. That’s setting them up to fail and can lead to serious trouble.
One thing is for certain: Like all major parts of a relationship, expectations must be discussed. Partners need to talk up front about what you expect of one another, and, much like conversations about household labor, have such conversations regularly. Bad things happen when expectations are assumed. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, we haven’t set expectations in a while…” then find a time to do it — and try to avoid being unreasonable.
“You can certainly set expectations for yourself because you have the ability to control your own behaviors,” says Dr. Robin Buckley, an author, public speaker, and cognitive-behavioral coach. “When our significant others don’t meet our expectations, however, we don’t have the ability to read their thoughts. Because of this, we blame them — their personalities, characteristics, motivation; this is known as attributional bias and can then lead to doubt about the relationship and your connection to your partner.”
Unreasonable expectations or the feelings that expectations are not being met can lead to insecure feelings on the part of both partners. That’s why it’s important to set up expectations in a number of areas before the fear of them not being met threatens to overwhelm the relationship. Setting and resetting expectations as a team is a big part of maintaining a happy, healthy relationship. Here are a few to consider.
1. Expectations About Sex
Sex should be a topic of regular discussion in relationships. Otherwise, it’s easy for anxieties to crop up. If, say, there’s a drop in frequency that goes unaddressed, it could lead to different internal dialogues or assumptions that don’t match with the actual situation. Misinterpretations can easily lead to plenty of resentment. Couples should get on the same page about frequency of sex (but also understand that frequency does change throughout the course of a relationship), as well as such topics as satisfaction, likes and dislikes, triggers, and sexual menus in a shame-free manner. Without a regular a dialogue, not to mention a solid foundation of trust and openness, it’s easy for couples to put undue expectations on their partner and themselves.
“The earlier you can talk about it, the better,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist, columnist and the author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius. “It prevents misunderstandings and having to read the other person’s mind. And that honesty can also create intimacy, which will actually help in the sexual arena.”
2. Expectations About Money
Money is a big pain point for many couples, even those who have quite a bit of it. But it can be especially trying when expectations are placed on how much money one should be earning or how much (or little) should be spent. If, say, one partner expects to handle all the bills his or herself but the other assumed that they would talk about finances together, things can easily turn sour. Same if, say, one partner expects their partner to provide a certain type of lifestyle but unexpected expenses occur. Again, without a regular dialogue where discussions are had about spending, saving, and more, couples will be in for a tough journey.
“There is often a lot of power and shame associated with money issues,” says Saltz. “So it’s pretty easy for one or the other to stay ignorant and then be horrendously upset when something comes up that they don’t like.”
To avoid this type of situation, Saltz recommends that couples have a weekly sit-down to discuss the finances. “Take an hour to say, ‘Where are we? What do things look like? What is coming down the pike?’ Don’t wait for there to be any issues.”
3. Expectations About What Your Partner Provides You
Many people enter into a marriage believing that their partner is going to be their “everything.” They’ll be the person who does every activity with you, enjoys every concert, gets excited about going to the same restaurants and even the same teams that you do. But a marriage is made up of two different people with different backgrounds, interests and passions. Hopefully, the majority will intersect for you both, but it’s okay if a few — or more than a few — don’t. That’s what friends, co-workers, family members, and others in your circle are for.
“While you might have a friend you call when you want to go to sporting event, and another who’s good for last minute fun, and another who is always available when you need help, this understanding of people filling different roles in your life might end when you create the expectation that your one partner can do it all for you,” says Buckley. “When he or she can’t, you are left disappointed.”
Some spouses have this idea that their significant other should immediately understand how they’re feeling or what they want, and that, if they don’t, it’s somehow a reflection of how little they care. This can be doubly dangerous, as it sets you up to be disappointed and leaves your partner to have to guess what it is that you want or need. And, if they guess wrong, to dig themselves an even deeper hole.
In these situations, Buckley says that couples need to almost have a “script” that the other can follow. Lay out your thoughts clearly and let your partner know exactly what your expectation is. “Write the script so your partner knows what you’re thinking,” says Buckey. “So they can know what you want, how you want it to go and can help you understand whether they can meet your needs.” As always, the smartest expectation to talk often about expectations.
4. Expectations About Who You Are as a Couple
Comparison, as has been said, is the thief of joy. And these days, there are plenty of opportunities to gaze into the lives of others — particularly the spit-shined, expertly manicured lives of those on social media — and sabotage your happiness. Looking at someone’s life through the lens of Facebook or Instagram can create unrealistic standards, forcing you to focus on the traits your partner doesn’t have, while ignoring the ones that they do.
As an example, Buckley cites a client who became frustrated with her spouse, accusing her of not reading enough and engaging her in exciting conversations and debates about books like the ones she’d seen her online friends having. “When I asked her if her wife liked to read,” Buckley recalls, “she responded, ‘No. She’s never been a reader.’ My client’s expectation was to have these amazing conversations about books with her wife because that’s what other friends were doing, although her wife never enjoyed reading.”
Trying new things is one thing but expecting your partner to be someone completely different is another entirely. It’s easy to get fooled into thinking all relationships should look like those you scroll through or see in other highly stylized formats.
5. Expectations About Who You Are As Parents
Everyone has visions of what kind of a parent they would like to be, especially when they are about to start their parenting journey. But parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s easy to get out of the gate with expectations that don’t always align with reality even in the best cases. No one can be a perfect parent all the time, but it’s important to not fall into despair just because you or your partner sometimes fall short of the parenting bar you set for yourselves and each other. It’s very important to have constant conversations and be mindful of what pressures your partner might face or what you both might face as a unit.
“It’s not unusual for a woman to say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re this great dad, and I’m not the primary caretaker. It makes me wonder what’s wrong with me,” Saltz says. “Parenting can be very competitive, and there can be a feeling that your kid has to be a superstar as a reflection of your perfect parenting. But I’d argue that that is a very unreasonable and unhealthy goal that you’ve set out for yourself. But there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Sometimes the goal is to be a good enough parent.”