Expectations are often discussed in a way that makes them all seem equal, and I've come to believe that that is so often at the root of relationship problems. We group expectations together and only ask whether or not to have them, and debate that singular question as though the problem with expectations lies only in either having them or not.
But as I share in Part 1 of this post, I believe the issue of expectations is far more nuanced than that. The question I believe we should be asking ourselves isn't should we have expectations or not, it's 'how do I establish healthy expectations that support mutual benefit and satisfaction?'
I believe strongly that having expectations in our relationships is not only okay, it's critical. And I explained the reasons why in Part 1. Expectations based on needs are primarily the expectations I believe we should all hold without compromise. Respect, kindness, acceptance, affection- these are examples of needs that translate into healthy expectations. Without these things, flourishing relationships are not possible. Without flourishing relationships, thriving as individuals is not possible. Therefore we will call these expectations Premium Expectations.
But what about expectations based on needs that are more unique and less universal? Expectations that are particular to an individual based on their love style or personality? Expectations that fall into this category, which I call Moderate Expectations, are not expectations that are fair or reasonable to have of everyone, the way Premium Expectations are. These, instead, require more moderation in their application. Their validity is subject to how they compliment the person of whom we expect them. The expectation can be considered reasonable and feasible to have of one person, and not of another.
Keep in mind the question of whether an expectation is mutually beneficial and satisfying. Now imagine you are dating someone new and it's been about 2 months. You are a self-aware person and know your primary love language is affection, followed closely by words of affirmation. This person is kind to you, treats you with a lot of respect, accepts you for who you are- so that is great! You know they care about you because they are thoughtful- maybe they vacuumed out your car or made your lunch without your asking- so sweet! And they brought you a thoughtful gift, which you appreciated.
But, they aren't very affectionate physically. And they don't really tell you how they feel about you or pay compliments. You even noticed that they don't hug their friends and they never really say much about what the people they are close to mean to them. In fact, they've even mentioned how they aren't really good about verbally expressing their feelings, and it makes them somewhat uncomfortable. They aren't really into the "touchy-feely" stuff. Though they are very generous and giving in other ways.
But you need physical touch, and you like to hear how much someone loves you and what they love about you. That's what makes you feel most loved and very happy in your relationships. So what can you expect? Is it fair to expect your new partner to be more affectionate than they are naturally inclined to be? And to be more verbally expressive than is natural or comfortable for them? Well, maybe. Before any expectations regarding behavior change can be justified, communication needs to take place.
First, you need to communicate your need. You CAN expect your new partner to listen to your needs and to care that this is something that matters to you. This is a simple practice of respect and kindness; fundamental needs that enable you to feel seen and heard. A moderate expectation that may then result will be born out of that conversation. If your partner agrees to try and be more affectionate, than you may expect them to put that effort in and try.
But this is where things need to be approached with caution. We all already know how hard it is to change anything about ourselves- we should not expect our partners to change immediately or with ease, or even to succeed at all. It's your responsibility to find a partner that is demonstrably able to meet your needs, or to accept a different way of loving as sufficient for yourself. You cannot expect anyone to change in order to meet your needs unless they communicate that that is their desire, and then your expectations need to be held together with the reality that the change may or may not take hold, because change is hard and up to the other person, not up to you.
When I met Austin I was aware that acts of service and gifts were my primary love languages. He is very verbally expressive and extremely affectionate, but he's not one who'll naturally begin looking for things to do to make my life easier. If I ask him to do something specific he is always willing to help me. But someone who is inclined toward acts of service looks for opportunities to help and does them without being prompted. I shared my love languages with him and he expressed that he wants to love me that way.
But alas, 3 years later I usually still have to ask. I fully accept this and feel nonetheless very loved in our relationship, which is ultimately what I need- to feel the love. I've decided it's enough for me that he tells me very often how he feels and that we snuggle a lot and hold hands and kiss and hug. I don't expect him to buy me gifts or take my car in for an oil change. It's just not how he naturally operates- though, because he has heard me, he does get me a gift, brings me flowers, or does something he knows I've had on my to-do list from time to time, and it's always a wonderful surprise when it happens. But if I held him accountable to these other ways of being as the norm- if I expected him to be primarily that way- we'd probably both be pretty miserable. Instead, I accept him for who he is, and love him for what he does do to show his love toward me. I am happy because my need for feeling deeply loved is ultimately met.
But what if I had a stronger need for these particular love languages of acts of service and gifts to be more heavily practiced by my partner, because otherwise I wasn't feeling loved? Then I would likely have to end the relationship and find a partner for whom that would be feasible, someone who naturally operates in these ways. This way, we would both be benefiting and feeling satisfied because there is a fundamental compatibility that enables both of us to naturally give and receive without either being stretched or sacrificing beyond our comfort and what is sustainable.
The bottom line is, a Moderate Expectation is one that is only feasible if it:
1. Allows the other person to have their fundamental needs met without compromise (respect, kindness, acceptance etc.)
2. Is agreed upon and genuinely desired by both individuals (mutually beneficial and satisfying)
3. Promotes the others person's natural tendencies, abilities, and/or desires
Any expectation that is extended without the above 3 requirements met is what I call a Toxic Expectation. This type of expectation breeds disappointment, resentment, criticism and contempt in relationships. This happened when I expected Austin to stop smoking socially, as I talked about in Part 1. I knew he was a social smoker and then I decided I didn't like it anymore. So I expected him to stop. He never agreed to it. He didn't want to stop! He needs to feel free to smoke with his pals sometimes. We had a lot of fights that put considerable stress on our relationship. I was judging him (unkind, unaccepting), I was demanding him to bend to my will (disrespect), and not being thoughtful to what he desired (not mutually satisfying). It was a toxic expectation that had to go.
In summary, I've broken expectations down into 3 types- Premium (fundamental human needs based), Moderate (individual needs or preferences that meet the 3 criteria), and Toxic (individual needs or preferences that do not meet the 3 criteria of moderate expectations).
Are you struggling with disappointment in your relationships? What are your thoughts on this expectations model? What would you add, change, challenge? I want to know what you think and what you're experiencing! If you adjust your expectations to match the ideas I have shared, please let me know what the result is!
My work on expectations is just beginning, so I'd love your thoughts and feedback. Comment below or email me directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.