The silent relationship killer: expectations

 Well, what did you expect?

And now, you’re disappointed. Again.

Unmet expectations are the silent relationship killer. You know you have them.  We all do.  We all assume that our partner should know us well enough, should love us enough, and should be enough like us that they intuitively know what we need and respond accordingly.  But if you talk to couples splitting up, a large percentage of the time there is a silent complaint underlying the surface reasons for the break. And it hinges on the expectations we have of each other that went unmet.

You may argue – Not so silent!  I express my needs! I am clear on what I want from my partner!

Perhaps.  That may be true.  And yet you’re still at the precipice of disappointment in your relationship. So what lies underneath what has actually been said? What was actually understood?  Here is why expectations are a silent killer:

  • Lack of clarity. Sometimes we express an idea, a request, a query, and we think we’re being excruciatingly clear. But we do not know until we hear the response whether or not what we have said has been understood – the way that we intended it to be understood. We leave a lot open to interpretation because we simply assume the other person knows us well enough to know exactly what we mean. But sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes our partners have their own ideas.  And sometimes. in their own ideas, our partner might think he was meeting your request already.
  • Wait, what did you say? We’re not the greatest listeners. And when our need isn’t met, we repeat the same request, often in the same way – except, perhaps, with a few more tears or an escalated emotion in our voice – because we cannot understand why we are not getting the desired result. We keep asking and pushing for a result, but we haven’t heard what our partner has to say about it. And believe me, he or she has said something.
  • If he loved me more, he would do it. Even if we are aware that our request is not our partner’s favorite thing to do for us, we believe that “if he loved me more” or “if she really cared about me”, then our partners would suck it up and comply. But this means we’re placing the value of our partner’s love on the expectation that he/she will meet a particular action.  Is that really where the value of a relationship should lie?

But are these really silent?

They are. The underlying verb in all of these is “assumed.”  We figured that our partners, our soulmates, are so in-tune with who we are and what we need, that meeting our expectations in our relationships is a no-brainer. So we don’t have the conversations that clarify our request, and we ignore the subtle  – and sometimes not so subtle – signs that our partner may have a different point of view. So when the argument breaks out and the hurt feelings are expressed, you and your partner are already coming it at from two different viewpoints.  And if we get carried away by our anger and hurt feelings, it makes it that much harder to hear what was really being said and what was really going on in the moment – was she really misbehaving or did she just interpret your request a different way?

How can you avoid the silent killer?

We all have needs and expectations when we’re in relationship with another person.  Especially when it’s someone who holds our heart – our fear, our vulnerability, our hope and our love all have demands that we desire another soul will meet.  So how do we make our intimate relationships true partnerships, and not merely a checklist of “to-dos” that both partners desperately manage in hopes of maintaining balance?

  1. Know what you truly want. We often burden our relationships with expectations that aren’t actually all that important to us – it could be a value from your mother that he should always plan your nights out or a comment by a girlfriend that he should have bought you a more expensive gift. Are those really your values? Know what’s important before you ask for it.
  2. Ask with clarity and define it. Your partner needs to understand, clearly, the value you place on having this need met. Not just what it is, but what it looks like.  If I tell my partner I want him to talk to him more often on the phone during the day, what does that mean? Every day? Three times a day?  Or would three times a week suffice?  Clarify, clarify, clarify. Not just what it is, but what it provides for you. Help your partner understand why this expectation matters to you.
  3. Believe you deserve it. Our needs, our expectations, are not just demands we put on another for purposes of control. They feed us. And they are important. But if you don’t believe you deserve to have your expectations met, they won’t be met. And it has nothing to do with how much our partner loves us, but rather the importance we put on ourselves and our needs.
  4. Understand the consequences. No one likes to talk about them, but there are consequences. And if you’re not clear on what those are, and if your partner isn’t clear, how is there any accountability? How can you deem the request to be important? So understand for yourself: if your need isn’t met, what changes for you? What changes for your relationship? Then share that with your partner as part of the asking process. This has to be part of the discussion if you’re going to come to an honest understanding.
  5. Set aside time to discuss it. This is not an “oh, by the way” conversation or text.  This is a, “I’d like to talk about something I need.  When would be a good time?” request. This is honoring yourself and your partner enough to have an intimate conversation. Because even our simplest needs are intimate.
  6. Ask what you can do or what else needs to happen for your partner to meet your need. We forget this part a lot. It’s a partnership, not a dictatorship. If your request does not fall within the bounds of what’s comfortable for your partner, ask what they need to make it happen.  Understand why and be open to perhaps providing something in return.
  7. Put imaginary duct tape on your mouth, as Alison Armstrong says. Just because you ask, even nicely, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.  So listen. Your partner isn’t telling you no because he or she doesn’t love you. They’re telling you why.  Before you leap into disappointment and accusations, listen to what they’re really saying.  This is an amazing opportunity to really get to know your partner, to understand your differences, and to gain even deeper intimacy.

With deliberate conversation and clarity in what our real relationship needs are, we can stop holding our partners accountable for meeting expectations that they did not understand or did not agree to own. Instead, we can develop a mutually satisfying and rewarding relationship with deeper honesty and intimacy. And a lot less hurt.


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