Expectations seem to be getting a bad rap these days.
In recent posts I’ve discussed the idea of expectations in relationships (yes, they exist – and I would argue that’s a good thing). I’ve also discussed the idea that expectations are a part of setting goals, and having a vision for yourself and what you want in life.
Yet I continue to read things like “I just want people to love me without expecting anything from me”. There’s this idea that in unconditional love expectations are bad and people should just be satisfied with anything.
When exactly did “expectations” become demonized, and why? I suspect it’s due to a sense of confusion between expectation and entitlement.
Expectations are tied to our needs and wants. We need food and shelter to survive, so in the modern world some form of income is a need. Sex is a basic human instinct, and there is no clear consensus on whether it is truly a need or a want, but the fact that the argument even exists tells me that at least in some capacity sexual fulfillment is a need. The lines between needs and wants blur, and it’s pointless to try to differentiate the two; but expectation is a belief that our needs and wants are important and that we will attempt to fulfill them and that those around us will care about them.
However an expectation of something doesn’t mean it “will” happen, and periodically we find that our expectations are adjusted when reality doesn’t line up with them. But expectations are important, and there is nothing inherently wrong with them.
Life is an Exchange
When looking at expectations and needs in a relationship, I think you can draw many parallels to the world of work.
When looking at a prospective partner we are like a company doing interviews. We have a wish list of criteria and we are looking for someone that meets as many of those criteria as possible.
Depending on what you are looking for in a relationship these criteria will vary, but they usually include things like physical attraction, common interests, similar outlook or goals in life, sense of humor, reliability, sexual compatibility etc. If the relationship is serious things like outlooks on kids, responsibility and some degree of financial stability are also important. Criteria of a desirable partner is pretty subjective, but we all have *something* we are looking for which provides a perceived benefit to the relationship.
Finding someone who meets your criteria fairly well doesn’t mean you have a relationship though. Your partner has things they are looking for too. Their criteria may not be the same, but they also have to see value in what you bring to the relationship. It’s not a relationship unless both parties see some sort of benefit.
Even if the exchange is simply the enjoyment of each other’s company, both people must see some sort of value in maintaining and growing the relationship. If only one person sees value, the relationship won’t last – to suggest otherwise seems foolish to me.
Beyond criteria of what we are looking for in a partner, we also have some sort of vision of what we want our relationships to look like – with upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”. Most people probably have not actually thought through what these boundaries are, they only know when expectations are not being sufficiently met.
I suspect most people understand that their partner could better match their “ideal” standard, but they could also be a lot worse. So this question of “what is enough” is central to determining the viability of the relationship. Relationships struggle when needs are no longer being sufficiently met on one or both sides. When this happens, each partner is really evaluating “is this still enough for me”? If not, some leave. Others believe it can it be better, and look for ways to improve things.
It is when relationships are struggling that resentment about “expectations” arise, but the expectations in question have likely always been there. It’s only now that they have become an issue.
My belief is, expectations are natural and we all have them. They are actually positive, because if we didn’t have them then how could we judge if our relationship was still working? Would we just have to put up with anything?
Instead of expectations being a problem, the REAL problem is entitlement.
Entitlement is all about a sense of ownership or a belief that you *deserve* something. I see entitlement as having two main forms:
- I should get this because I want it, “no matter what”
- because I have done this you now have to do that
It is fine to have expectations of someone else – but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to anything. The other person matters here, and what you want doesn’t matter if they don’t also want the same thing.
I don’t care how nice someone is, how pretty/handsome they are, how much money they have, how many people they know or how educated they are. Sure, some of those things influence the opportunities you have, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing.
If expectations are fine and are the criteria for relationship satisfaction, but the fulfillment of those expectations is not guaranteed; how should people best position themselves to ensure their expectations are met?
The answer to that is, the only thing you truly have control over. You. Your choices, communication, and your behaviors.
This is where the golden rule comes in. People should try to live their lives in a way that their choices and behaviors are in line with their expectations.
If you want someone to treat you with love and kindness, *maybe* it would be a good idea if you were to treat them that way. If you are hoping to have your needs met in a relationship, you had better be working to understand your partners needs and trying to meet those. And it shouldn’t be a calculated “hmm, if I do this for him/her then they will do something for me” – this isn’t a financial transaction. You need to be doing it because you genuinely want to meet their needs – because you care about them and want to see them happy.
You also need to communicate your needs and wants. Many people hold resentment for unmet expectations, when they were never clearly understood by their partner in the first place. As I’ve said before, guys are dumb. Sometimes what one person thinks is clear is not clear to the other person.
So communicating expectations and reciprocating for your partner puts you in the best position for your expectations to be met. But that’s all it means. It doesn’t guarantee anything, and it doesn’t mean you will get what you want when you want it.
You may end up disappointed in some circumstances but over a period of time hopefully you will find that you and your partner are meeting each other’s expectations. In doing so, you should both find you have a high degree of satisfaction in the relationship.
When Expectations are not Met
Entitlement is believing your expectations will be met when and how you want them, or that others should conform to your needs. Yet expectations and needs are real.
If you find yourself unsatisfied in your relationship, then chances are your expectations also are not being met in some way. If this is happening in individual cases it’s not an issue. But when it becomes a pattern over extended periods it can become a significant problem. When this occurs, it’s important to understand what the problem actually is.
Are specific expectations that are not being met? If so, take a good look at them and ask yourself if they are fair expectations to have. Maybe they aren’t, and you would be best served by adjusting your expectations. If you look at your expectations and feel they are fair, then it’s important to discuss this with your partner.
Let’s look at one of the most common issues in a relationship – sex. I’ve written about sexual issues in the past, and the reality is that due to differing drives sex is always a potential source of conflict.
To be clear, no one is entitled to sex.
Entitlement is when someone expects sex “on demand”. Or believes that if they do something for their partner, they should get sex in return – regardless of what their partner wants. This is wrong.
However another version of entitlement is that if someone is not interested in sex they should not have to have it – regardless of what their partner wants. Due to the nature of a monogamous relationship I see this as equally wrong. This may not be a popular view, and I’m not saying someone should ever “have to” have sex when they don’t want to. But although a sense of entitlement around sex is wrong, an expectation of sex in a relationship is not wrong.
Entitlement says “I need sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”. Or “I’m not interested in sex, and it doesn’t matter what you want”.
Expectation says “I need sex as part of this relationship, and I am not satisfied without it”.
These are different.
People need feel fulfilled sexually, and this requires communication. To have a successful relationship, both partners need to care about what the other one wants. Nothing should ever be entirely on one person’s terms. As discussed earlier, for all needs people have upper and lower boundaries of what is “enough”, and every couple needs to find a way to navigate these boundaries that works for them.
I use sex as an example because this is the one situation in a relationship where someone’s level of satisfaction is completely dependent on their partner (which is probably why it is a source of conflict). Most other needs can be satisfied individually or with other people. But these ideas of boundaries apply to all needs. In a relationship your partners needs should be important to you, and you should get satisfaction and enjoyment from seeing them met.
For some needs, one persons lower boundaries may be the upper boundaries the other, and this is natural. As long as their needs are still being met enough to meet the lower boundaries, there is no conflict. But when the upper boundary for one person doesn’t even approach the lower boundary for the other, over time conflict will arise.
With healthy communication, a couple will try to work on things and see if they can improve the situation. Maybe there are reasons, and if those reasons are understood there is often a willingness to adjust expectations and change these boundaries accordingly.
If the lower boundaries of needs aren’t met however, eventually this will start to poison the rest of the relationship. Expectations form our measures of success. It’s pretty simple – If expectations are being met we’re happy, and If they aren’t we aren’t
Changes Over Time
Learning to communicate and adjust expectations is important for the success of any long term relationship.
People change, and the things we are looking for may also change over time. People also go through different life events, so even if your criteria don’t change your partner may no longer meet them in the way they once did. Plus relationships start as “new and exciting”. Passion is based on this excitement, but it can be hard to maintain that when you know the other person so well that there isn’t really anything new left to say.
Due to these things all relationships will struggle at times. During those times, if you truly want to weather the storm you need to be able to deal with difficult issues. You need to communicate with each other honestly and openly, addressing problems and working through them together. This is the hardest part in any relationship, and it is something that can definitely feel like work.
When I compare relationships to work, what I am saying is that you NEED to actively work on them. And if you don’t, there is a very good chance that you will either be unhappy, or it will fail (or both).
So accept that both you and your partner have expectations of each other, and communicate those. Your expectations will differ, and this can cause conflict – but it’s important that you work to addressing these conflicts in a way that is satisfactory to both. No one is ever entitled to having their expectations met, but finding a middle ground that works for both people is needed in order for any relationship to succeed.