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The Secret to Setting Healthy Expectations in Relationships


Earlier this month, I discussed my expectations for myself this year. Circling back to the beginning of 2023 and reflecting on the last six months was an eye-opening exercise to reconcile my hopes with my reality.


We all have a vision of our future lives. Whether you identify yours as goals, dreams, or plans, these intentions knit the fabric of our lives. They influence what, when, how, and with whom we accomplish tasks, be they menial or monumental.


What we expect from others

All this thinking about the demands we place on ourselves got me thinking, what about the expectations we set for others? We put just as much pressure, if not more, on our relationships, and most interpersonal conflicts can be boiled down to what the other person is willing to give not aligning with what we need or want.


Much of this misalignment can be resolved with communication. Imagine fearlessly telling the other party what you want as they extend the same courtesy to you, all without judgment or shame. Sounds lovely, but how often does that really happen? The truth is that most of us are rarely upfront about what we want.


Are expectations essential?

This perennial problem begs the question, are expectations healthy for relationships? We might protect ourselves from disappointment when we expect little, but we also prevent ourselves from getting close to others.


To answer this question, I explored what experts believe about the role of expectations in our professional acquaintances, friendships, and romantic attachments.


A few years ago, psychologists from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro examined this issue. They wanted to know if people in romantic relationships choose to commit (or not) based on what they anticipate for the relationship rather than their current satisfaction. Basically, do you remain in a relationship because of what you think it will become or because of what it actually is?


Their research found that having high yet realistic standards is healthy. People who knew what they wanted from their romantic attachments were more likely to achieve that kind of relationship. The researchers concluded that expectations are positive and almost essential to ensure future happiness.


Other experts had conflicting views. Social psychologist Theresa E. DiDonato advises against presumptions. In her article, she said, “The problem with expectations seems to be less about what yours are and more about whether they are being met by your partner (at least in your judgment).”


DiDonato cited a 2017 study analyzing relationship expectations for adults in their 20s. Participants whose partners weren’t what they had presupposed had low relationship satisfaction, investment, and commitment. By her estimation, avoiding assumptions about the future is an effective way to prevent negativity from infiltrating your relationships.


Maybe the truth is that there’s a time and place for the right kind of expectations. In 2020, researchers in Denmark evaluated couples’ willingness to choose their partner’s needs over their own. According to their research, when you don’t assume your partner will act a certain way, you’re more grateful for the sacrifices they make for you. Those who were looking for frequent compromise were less likely to appreciate what their partner did for them. Compromise was appreciated most by those who didn’t anticipate concessions in the first place.


This study also noted that partners who were happy in their relationship didn’t always have the same beliefs about the role of sacrifice in their partnership. They believed some people were falling short of their partner’s expectations without even realizing it.


A healthy balance

Their solution? Communicate. Telling the other person what you want ensures you’re in sync. This is as true for romantic attachments as for friendships and work relationships.


No matter what you anticipate from others, we all hurt when someone important to us falls short. We might feel unworthy and deprived or question whether or not we deserve what we desire.


In my research, I came across an interesting perspective. One expert referred to expectations as “premeditated resentments.” While I understand the sentiment, there’s still a compelling argument for knowing what you want from your relationships.


When we don’t, we’re vulnerable and risk getting taken advantage of. We can easily remain stuck in unfulfilling relationships and miss significant emotional growth. No one wants to feel this way, either.


Our brains are anticipation machines, hard-wired to forecast the future and form attachments to those around us. While the combination of these actions may cause pain, they also help us develop the meaningful bonds that feed our souls.


Ultimately, expectations are unavoidable. It’s how you navigate them that really matters. Being realistic and reasonable is a great start, but the real work is clearly communicating what you want to others.


I’m not going to tell you this is easy. It isn’t. But it’s always worth it.




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