Could expectations be ruining your relationship?
I sleepily shuffled into the kitchen this morning, pulled a mug from the cabinet, and smiled as the smell of coffee filled my nose as I poured. The slightly bitter hot beverage starts every morning of my life. Most of the time, I don’t even think about where it comes from or how it is made. I just come, get, drink. I expect the coffee to be there. In the scant few times when it hasn’t been, I’m immediately frustrated with the me I was the night before for not making it, or the machine for not going off, or even my husband for not making it. We’ve had a number of coffee machines over the years, and the only consistent thing about the entire morning experience for me is the expectation that the coffee SHOULD. BE. THERE.
When I’ve been group camping, with no expectations of coffee in the morning, it’s been a delightful surprise when someone else has whipped up the brew on a Coleman stove in a percolator. Pure joy, in fact.
What if I expected my spouse to make coffee and he doesn’t? What if he says he wants to make it, knows how to do it, but just forgets repeatedly? I have an unmet expectation. Whether my expectation is realistic, hopeful, or unrealistic is also irrelevant sometimes. The point is, depending on my maturity level and where I’m wounded, how I handle this is going to vary. If I’m immature, I’m going to keep expecting him to make coffee, keep complaining about it (externally or internally) all the while expecting the coffee to be there in the morning. And there we have the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Over time, it then becomes possible to build up a chewy thick level of resentment, because doing nothing isn’t the solution a mature person would apply.
We can look at these simple expectations about coffee as analogous to our relationships with people. It is normal to have relationships with moments when our needs aren’t being met, people aren’t kind, and we feel let down. Expecting things to be different over time by doing nothing, however, is insanity. We think we are being good by avoiding dealing with the situation, when in fact, we are being nice, which isn’t Biblical. Something needs to change in the relationship – expectations of the other person’s behavior, our mindset, or our own behavior. Sometimes we expect people to act differently than they always have, to suddenly be kind, for example, when that would be new for them.
We get into further trouble when we expect relationships to be conflict and hassle-free, with deep connection in every interaction. My guess is there are spaces in some of your relationships where you wish things were different and you just don’t know how to change what’s going on. Often those are the places where we have expectations, and they can get in the way of our mental health and our relational outcomes. Sometimes we have what society would consider “realistic expectations” that aren’t getting met. “Realistic,” however, would be defined by the “reality-check” we do. Is it realistic to expect someone to do something they clearly have no interest in doing? At some point, if we don’t deal with our expectations, they build resentment and come out sideways at the other people in our lives. None of this is pleasing to God or helpful to our relationships.
Expectations and Hope
There is a difference between expectations and hope. Hope is a healthy longing or want for something God says is good. We know what these things are by what God teaches us through the Bible. It’s good to hope our spouse will tell the truth. It’s good to hope they will be faithful to us in marriage. When our spouse lies or is unfaithful, we can tell if our healthy “want” has morphed over into an expectation and a “need” by our response to their betrayal – are we okay? Do we panic? Do we demand and harbor resentment and contempt for them?
Even though the desire for truth and fidelity is certainly “reasonable,” if we are devastated by our spouse’s behavior, lose our identity, and cannot go on without them, blame ourselves, etc., we’ve morphed our healthy “want” into a “need.” The reality-check creates awareness that our spouse isn’t doing what we had hoped. Grace and maturity leave us in a healthy space of being able to grieve the loss of what we thought we had, and hope for things to be different, but not have the expectations that end in resentment and contempt. This practice in psychology is called, “radical acceptance,” and it is a wildly healthy thing to do. Our ability to move forward, and even influence the relationship and the other person comes from our lack of desperation, our strong sense of self, a healthy understanding of what hope is, and an acceptance of reality – reality as it is, not as we wish it would be. We can handle what life tosses our way, not because of other people’s behavior, but because we know who and Whose we are.
Are You as Bullet Proof as Viktor Frankl?
Know this is an extreme example, but one that demonstrates what is possible. Can we be okay regardless of what is going on around us? This isn’t saying we aren’t hurt, that we don’t grieve, but rather the extent of the wounding – how deep is it? We have had a relatively easy go at life these last 40 years, something our parents and grandparents didn’t have. Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor could be thankful for a crust of bread in his pocket while being imprisoned in a concentration camp. He is the well-known author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor. Consider these things he has said:
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Chewy thoughts, aren’t they? Makes our fussing over who has taken the garbage out last seem so very small. We weren’t raised in a difficult time, nor is the current time exceedingly hard comparatively speaking, to what Dr. Frankl experienced, so the challenges we have in our relationships seem mighty important and even insurmountable, indeed.
Gottman’s research shows that expectations are defining in relationships – that if you have expectations of being treated well or not, you are. We agree, but for the purposes of this post, we aren’t suggesting you don’t want the best for your relationship, but rather have an “expectation & reality check” where you compare the two to see if you are expecting something different than the reality you are living in. We are looking at the way they view expectations as “healthy” and not defining of the relationship. I’m a firm believer that people tend to live up or down to your expectations – except when they don’t, in which case, a visit to the land of reality is in order. Thinking the best of someone is a great practice, highly encouraged, in fact, but not what we’re talking about here today.
Our first exercise is laying down expectations, knowing that we may pick them up again repeatedly only to need to set them down again. This is a battle we are having with God and ourselves, trying to control our happiness by expecting things from other people. Laying those expectations down communicates that we are trusting Him with whatever He deems fit for our lives. Rest assured that you will deepen your relationship with God as you learn and grow in this book experience. You will know how to cease the curation of insanity and respond differently without unrealistic expectations in more areas of your life. This results in less emotional pain for both you and the other person, and greater confidence and satisfaction in God and yourself. Please note that I’m NOT asking you to simply “rollover” and allow yourself to be taken advantage of. I’m asking you to take a look at what truly is your reality – the relationship you actually have, or the one you keep longing for?
Make a list of those places where you wish things were different and can’t seem to make change happen. Maybe they include expectations you have of yourself or God, also. Here’s a few examples of what you might have as expectations:
- My spouse does their share of chores without me reminding or asking
- I get sex whenever I want it
- My kids do not have troubles
- Someone other than me steps up to lead, take care of things, etc.
- My employees do what I ask them to do without issues
- My sibling, spouse, parent, coworker, child, etc. doesn’t have conflict with me
- My spouse looks the same as they did when I married them
- People care as much as I do
- Other people act properly in situations
- Coworkers take initiative and do what they say they’re going to do
- God always protects me and my family from illness
- My children represent Jesus to the world whenever we are in public
- My relationships never have conflict
- My spouse and/or children are less/more relational and emotional, intellectual, spiritual, etc.
- My spouse considers my needs above their own
- God would make my life easier if He genuinely loved me
- My kids make good decisions
- My superior gives me more recognition
- My kids obey without question
Please note that you are NOT giving up hope for what is good, but rather choosing to trust God with His plan in His timing instead of yours. The way you have been trying to impact things hasn’t been working anyway so what do you really have to lose? Why not try something different?
I know. Hard stuff.
When you have your list, make a copy of it. Put one copy in an envelope, label it, “Expectations I’m letting go of,” and put it in your journal to be looked at later. Set the other list on fire (be careful!) or destroy it in some other way, saying to God, “I release my expectations of myself, You, and others. I choose to trust You with transforming my mind so Your glory and goodness will be seen. I choose to lay down my desire and attempt to control the outcomes of these situations. I choose to get out of Your way. I choose to be brave and courageous and step forth as You call me to trying new ways of doing things. Your ways are not our ways, and I ask that You make me more like You.”
Unmet expectations plant seeds of resentment. God has a different plan than we do – be open to it and watch change occur in relationships.
What about you?
Take a few moments to journal your responses to these questions:
- What was it like to look at the expectations you have of others?
- Do you have expectations that you think should be realistic and reasonable?
- Which ones seem unrealistic, or otherwise perhaps selfish?
- When people don’t live up to your expectations, where does judgment show up for you in handling that?
How have expectations and hope have shown up in your relationships? Dare you to let me know in the comments 🙂 Feel free to share wildly with others, also.
Love to you,
PS – If you want a community to grow with, we have openings in our Strength & Dignity Wives online eCourse – STOP being stuck in your relationships. Sign up today!