“I guess I just expected. . .”

If I’ve heard this statement once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, and I can see danger ahead! I’m in a therapy session with a couple or with an individual, and we’re exploring relationship stress. For some reason one partner is clearly very upset about what has happened within the relationship. There is disappointment and disillusionment about something that the other partner either did or failed to do. The resulting hurt expresses itself negatively through sadness and emotional withdrawal--or through anger and retaliation.
My question:   “So, what is there about his behavior that has hurt you so much?”
The response:  “Well, somehow I just expected. . .”

There it is—the underlying issue—expectations. We enter into a friendship or a marriage with expectations of what will or will not happen within that particular relationship. Whether recognized or not, expectations are present in every human relationship. When fulfilled, these expectations bring joy and satisfaction; when unfulfilled, they bring hurt and dissatisfaction. Without a doubt expectations do contain an element of danger.
Problems understandably occur when a person chooses deliberately to ignore or frustrate the other person’s expectations. That choice, whether made out of apathy or malice, leads to the predictable deterioration of the basic relationship. However, the pattern that I see more often actually revolves around ignorance rather than unconcern or hostility. What would you predict will happen if you don’t understand my expectations of our relationship? What if I’ve never revealed or clarified to you what I want or need? Suppose, like most people tend to do, I just assume that somehow you will know specifically and clearly what I expect, and I further assume that you will do everything possible to fulfill my expectations to my personal satisfaction. Can you predict the outcome? When I fail to self-disclose my expectations to you I set up a situation in which fulfillment is unlikely. Realistically, how can you meet my expectations if you don’t even know what they are? Conversely, how can I fulfill your expectations of me if I don’t understand what they are? The resulting frustration is definite and destructive.
The failure to understand and fulfill mutual expectations lies at the heart of most relationship conflict and breakup. Couples argue and fight about surface symptoms while they ignore the underlying issue—unfulfilled expectations. So, what do we need to do about this important issue of relationship expectations? How can we develop a process that will increase mutual understanding and fulfillment of relationship expectations?
I recommend a simple three-step process revolving around three “fy” words: specifysolidify, and satisfy. As you probably know, the ending “fy” is a suffix that forms a verb designed to make, to do, or to cause to happen. Each word is a verb that accomplishes an important component of our expectation process.
Step #1:  Specify our expectations.

In the first step we specify our individual expectations. We begin by defining the term “expectation” as something we want or need within the relationship, something that we anticipate receiving. We believe that the fulfillment of each want or need is an inherent part of the relationship contract, so therefore we assume that somehow our wants and needs all will be met. These expectations constitute our hope for a satisfying and enjoyable future relationship.
Next, as specifically as possible, we identify clearly what we do expect within this particular relationship, whether it’s a friendship or a marriage. We sit down with pen and paper (or a computer) and make a list of what we want and need from this relationship. We convert these items into an expectation format:  “In this relationship I expect you to . . . .” Then, we try to rank-order our expectations in terms of priority and importance. My #1 expectation is much more critical than the item rated as #18. This identification and prioritizing of our personal expectations are vital pre-requisites to the total process. As I explore my personal expectations, I try to distinguish them from personal “demands.” I may have a right to reasonable expectations; I have no right to any demands. At the end of this step I’m able to look at my list and conclude, “This list captures the heart of what I expect within this relationship, and the items are prioritized to the best of my knowledge.”
Step #2:  Solidify our expectations.

After specifying my personal expectations, I’m ready now for the next step: solidifying our mutual expectations as a part of the underlying relationship foundation. To accomplish the second step we openly and clearly discuss our identified expectations with each other. In this discussion we work toward three goals. The first goal is logical: understanding each other’s expectations. To accomplish this goal we use self-disclosure and active listening tools to help us focus on mutual understanding, as opposed to getting caught up too quickly into disagreement and objection. Paraphrasing and clarifying can be useful in achieving accurate understanding. Each person needs to feel understood, and each one feels more respected and valued when that understanding has been gained.

Mutual self-disclosure does not guarantee ultimate relationship satisfaction, but it is a necessary prerequisite. Alternatively, a failure to self-disclose definitely invites major stress. Imagine a couple’s situation after a few years of marriage. A typical verbal exchange may sound something like this.
                Husband:  “That’s not fair. You never said you expected me to do that.” 
                Wife:  “I shouldn’t have to! You should know that without having to be told. You’re not stupid.”
                Husband:   “But how can I read your mind? That’s impossible. You’re expecting too much out of me.”
                Wife:    “No, I’m not. If you love me, you’d know what I need. You’re the one who’s being unfair!”

Instead of bringing the resolution needed by this couple these negative exchanges serve only to deepen the ongoing frustration. To make things better they need to do now what they failed to do at the beginning of their relationship, that is, to disclose and discuss honestly and openly their mutual expectations. Such communication hopefully will help them to understand their current emotional pain and will guide them toward a better, healthier relationship in the journey ahead. But why wait until our marriage is on a collision course with disaster. Clearly, the best time for doing this “expectations work” is before we get married, not several years down the marriage highway! 
Mutual understanding leads to the second goal:  agreeing with the shared expectations. Hopefully, my response will be something like, “Okay, that expectation is one I can accept, and I think I can fulfill it to your satisfaction.” However, if I think that a particular expectation is inappropriate or unrealistic, I enter into a negotiation phase in which I try to get the expectation modified or changed in some way. This process may be difficult and challenging, but it is crucial to the future health and happiness of the couple. If the two people are unable to negotiate their differences to their satisfaction, they could request the assistance of a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who can help them resolve their conflict through workable solutions. 
The agreement with our spouse’s understood expectations bring us to the third goal:  committing to our expectations. We make a solemn commitment toward the fulfillment of our spouse’s expectations to the best of our ability. This commitment can be made verbally or may be done in written form. Many couples prefer to write their mutual expectations down in a contract form so they can date and sign the agreement. Their signatures authenticate the acceptance of the expectations, thereby completing the solidifying of the process.
Step #3:  Satisfy our expectations.

The third step involves each spouse’s efforts to satisfy the other person’s expectations. This process is never done to perfection; however, it is hoped that each spouse will feel reasonably satisfied with the other’s person’s effort. Wise couples will schedule regular checkpoints for reviewing the expectations and sharing mutual levels of satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction. This review could be done annually, perhaps on a special weekend “retreat” in which the discussion is only one part of a great time together. Acknowledged satisfaction will reinforce the health and joy of the relationship; reported dissatisfaction can result in positive problem-solving and renewed growth. Periodic reviews hopefully will prevent the buildup of negative feelings. Potential problems can be identified and resolved before they escalate into major roadblocks.
Furthermore, our expectations may change over time as we move through the adult life cycle.  A certain expectation may decrease in its importance, or it may cease altogether. We may develop new expectations as our wants and needs change over time. Couples need to be aware of these changes, and they need to discuss and renegotiate their basic expectations contract as these changes occur. A failure to do so will only invite inner disappointment and frustration, and the health of the relationship itself could be put in jeopardy.
Concluding thoughts. . .

These three steps are important:  specify our expectations, solidify our expectations, and satisfy our expectations. While the steps certainly cannot guarantee future happiness, they do provide meaningful reassurances toward a positive, healthy relationship.

On a recent trip I was pondering this topic of relationship expectations. In particular, I thought about the unnecessary misery I’ve witnessed in relationships when the two people did not understand their mutual expectations but who relied upon mind-reading and guessing. My ponderings resulted in the following poem written in limerick format. Perhaps the content will remind us all to be more diligent and deliberate about our relationship expectations.

                     “Relationship Expectations”

          Divorce was the path she selected
          Because her dear husband neglected
                     To fulfill all her needs
                     Through his love and his deeds
          That secretly she had expected.
          Her husband in constant frustration
          Tried guessing his wife’s expectation;
                     But his efforts to find
                     How to read her dear mind
          Provided no new revelation.
          For years they just simply pretended,
          All love and affection suspended,
                     They could not figure out
                     What their needs were about—
          At last their relationship ended.
          We learn that continual guesses
          Serve only to create more stresses;
                     Expectations kept sealed
                     That are never revealed—
          A roadmap for marital messes!
          To keep your own marriage progressing
          To make not a curse but a blessing:
                     Be sure not to neglect
                     To tell what you expect
          And stop the mind-reading and guessing!
                                                         -- Dr. Bill Baker  (2010)
What lies ahead in your relationship journey? How clearly do you understand the underlying expectations that exist within your relationship? How willing—and how able—are you to fulfill those expectations? Several years ago I put together a sample worksheet that couples have used in regard to their expectations. If you’d like to consider this resource, just click on the link given below and you can examine the worksheet online or you can print it for your personal usage. (You can open the file in either Word or in PDF file format.)

I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.

Note:  A follow-up article entitled "Unrealistic Relationship Expectations" will be published soon on this site. Unrealistic expectations threaten the health and security of our personal relationships, especially our marriages. In that blog Dr. Bill Baker will explore four unhealthy beliefs about relationships that generate unrealistic expectations. He'll provide alternative positive beliefs that will lead people toward realistic expectations and healthier relationships.

To examine the worksheet on "Exploring our Relationship Expectations" in a Word document format, click here.
To examine the worksheet on "Exploring our Relationship Expectations" in a PDF format, click here.
PREMARITAL EXPECTATIONS:  Dr. Baker has developed a worksheet to assist engaged couples as they try to identify, discuss, and negotiate their expectations of each other as a vital part of preparation for marriage. To view this document in PDF format click on the title below.The document can be printed for your usage.

                        "Premarital Preparation:  Exploring Expectations"

VIDEO: To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Negotiating Marriage Expectations," click on the image to the right or just click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


        (Blog: HR #105)

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