Every relationship has expectations, there are ones that are spoken and ones that are not, but virtually no relationship is completely without them. As you navigate those that pertain to your specific relationship, keep that in mind. Even a healthy relationship can experience struggle in terms of managing expectations.
The good news here is that while the details are unique from couple to couple or even person to person, the larger concept is quite common. Whether this is a new relationship or a partnership that spans decades, keep your finger on the pulse of expectation, and create open communication lines. You might be thrilled to learn more about yourself through this process as well. As you learn how to embrace the challenges of expectations in a relationship, you are also learning how to embrace change within the dynamic of your life and your priorities. Training your brain to have a settled default of ‘we’ instead of ‘me’ is a learning curve for everyone.
What are relationship expectations?
Simply put, these are standards to which you hold your partner and to which they hold you. Many couples have expectations in relationships that are in line with what you may predict a couple would want, as well as some that are unique to them. For example, sobriety is not something that commonly every couple would have as an expectation in their relationship, but if there is a history of substance abuse that is a piece of your puzzle, sobriety may be something that is expected. Breaking free from addiction can be a lifelong commitment, so it only makes sense to have a discourse about this for couples that it pertains to.
How they mold your relationship
Expectations in a relationship are a form of cause and effect. In many scenarios, an expectation is created as a result of an incident, either within your current relationship or even a previous one. For example, fidelity is one of the most common expectations in a relationship. However, the terms and conditions of fidelity may be based on if there was a betrayal preceding, which set that expectation.
Some common ways that you should anticipate high expectations affecting or molding your relationship are:
There are many other ways, and as previously mentioned, the details will be specific to each couple. Pay attention to how your partnership ebbs and flows as these conversations progress. This can help you decide if you are dealing with healthy or unrealistic expectations.
Below is a collection of reasonable expectations that are considered to be common within a relationship.
- Physical affection
- Time spent
- Interest and effort
Think about each of these examples individually and as a collective. Understanding that you are going to have to juggle them all simultaneously may feel overwhelming on paper, but chances are, these are things that you are inherently doing anyways. You also need to consider the duration of your relationship and allow for space for you and your partner to learn and grow, understanding that growing pains often accompany growth.
Working through conflict or tension
More often than not, expectations that are set that are unrealistic spawn from conflict or tension. If there is an incident, and one person holds on to their feelings, resentment can build. This resentment can lead to a person creating an expectation that their partner will not behave in a hurtful manner again but keep in mind, this is all happening internally. The problem with this is that the pain or disappointment is not communicated. As resentment and tension build, the relationship begins to suffer as a result.
When you choose not to work through conflict or tension, you are choosing to stunt the growth of your bond. You are also not giving the other person in the relationship a fair chance at improving or correcting their behavior, resulting in unrealistic expectations. Even if you need time or space, it is always best to communicate this need. Specifically, if you desire the relationship to move forward post-issue, you need to give it a chance.
How to communicate relationship expectations
A great deal of respect and mutual understanding has to already exist between you two for you to have success in communication expectations. It is also important to remember that firing off unmet expectations during moments of tension or conflict is not a good way to get you both on the same page.
Healthy expectations are born from healthy places, and if you expect respect, you must also give it. When you communicate expectations to your partner, understand that this is a two-way street and that just because you have said something does not mean it’s a done deal.
In fact, finding healthy ways to initiate and participate in this conversation can be an expectation in and of itself. This can be a great exercise in strengthening your commitment to the overall success of the relationship. If you are not communicating exactly what is expected of your partner and allowing them to do the same, the margin for error is so large it could cost you your entire partnership.
How to manage healthy and realistic expectations
Reasonable expectations in romantic relationships are two-fold. You are going to have a set of topics that belong to the relationship itself that requires each partner to work together, as a team, to manage and meet them. And you are also going to have individual expectations that will need to be focused on separately and as independents, with the focus placed on bettering yourselves as individuals so that the relationship can thrive indirectly.
Find your voice, and use it. Your partner cannot live up to unrealistic expectations, but they also cannot live up to ones they do not know exist. To have the relationship of your dreams, you are going to have to participate in creating it. Go after what you want, and assert yourself to do so.
Have boundaries and limits
Boundaries get a bad reputation for being mean in nature, but they are not. When a healthy boundary is set, it can actually result in relationship rules that allow your love to flourish. Having limits is also necessary in a romantic relationship because sometimes, when it comes to matters of the heart, we convince ourselves to allow actions and behaviors that are outside what we would otherwise accept.
The biggest of all unrealistic expectations is assuming that you are going to get your way, without push back, no matter what, and that is simply not reality. If compromise is not one of the top expectations in a relationship that you are involved in, it needs to be. Some of the most successful couples have learned how to bend when necessary and how doing so can be a saving grace. Acknowledging the other person’s perspective is also important.
It is okay to have a different perspective than your partner, but it is not okay to keep that to yourself. Honesty is a foundational piece of every relationship, and in terms of expectations in a relationship, it is essential.
Change cannot always be immediate, nor does it always happen on the timeline of our preference. Be patient with yourself and your partner, especially in the early stages of getting to know each other and learning how you both manage expectations. The in-between time can be a beautiful thing too, and this is a great opportunity to learn how to communicate, how you both handle conflict, and how unreasonable expectations can stunt your love before it even begins.
What to do if your partner fails to meet realistic expectations
You have had the talks, agreed on the terms, and given each other space to adjust, but expectations are still not being met; now what? If your partner fails to meet the expectations in a relationship, then an evaluation is necessary.
First, consider the context. What led to this? If this is something that you can reasonably discuss and appears as an isolated incident, then it might be wise to enforce your boundaries but also try to work it out. You and your partner are the only two people whose influence and opinion matter, so try to quiet any outside noises.
The dangers of unhealthy expectations
You can articulate what you want, but that does not mean that it is in the best interest of the relationship, and in some cases, what you want might even border on unhealthy. But how are you to know the difference between an unrealistic expectation and a healthy expectation? For many, the answer is trial and error.
Setting expectations in a relationship when it starts is usually a carryover from either one, or both, of the people’s previous relationships, or from their lives as independents, learning what they will, and will not tolerate from a coupling. Unhealthy expectations can result in a tricky dynamic where one, or both people, feel that their partner, or relationship, has not lived up to standards that have been set because those standards are, in fact, unreachable by anyone.
If this continues, it can potentially lead to some mental health issues for one or both of you. The hamster wheel of setting unrealistic expectations, not having them met, and reacting to that can be torturous and incredibly draining.
If you find yourself in this scenario and notice that it is affecting your mood and day-to-day emotions, think about if you may be showing signs of depression. The National Institute of Mental Health offers resources to utilize if you find that you are questioning what your emotions mean.
Expectations in a relationship are healthy and common so long as both you and your romantic partner want the same thing and have strongly communicated and worked to understand what that means for each of you. Pay close attention to how the discussions surrounding this topic feel, and trust your gut. Compromise is going to be critical, but a middle ground and an agreeable standard for the relationship are certainly not out of reach.
It is also important to note that even though some of these expectations are going to stay true to you, as your own person, they will not all translate from relationship to relationship. For example, what your previous partner felt comfortable or uncomfortable with, will not be identical to what your current or any future partners will also feel comfortable with. This is why it is important to identify your own code of expectations. Love can be blind in many ways, and if you are not self-assured enough to hold true to the standards that you have in place for yourself, it can sweep you away.