I had an interesting conversation with a client recently that started me thinking about our expectations and the impact they have on our satisfaction in our relationships. We all have these expectations but I have seen that we are often not even aware of them. These expectations are built from a lifetime of experiences and become ingrained into our belief systems. We define our relationships as good or based based on whether these expectations are met. We become frustrated, angry, resentful, and disillusioned when our partner doesn’t measure up. Our partner may have absolutely no idea what expectations we have been holding onto and how much they have fallen short.
Now, you won’t find me making a case for having zero expectations for your relationships and for yourself and your partner. I would, however, suggest taking a hard look at those expectations. Take a moment now, and write down your biggest frustrations with your partner. What are those things that leave you feeling angry, hurt, disappointed, or resentful? Now, look at that list and see if you can identify what expectations you have that lead to these feelings? You may need to take some time aside to journal about each of those things to get to the deeper expectations. For example, you may be frustrated that your spouse leaves a pile of their clean laundry on the floor of the bedroom for days. Your initial expectation is that they would put their clothes away the day they are washed. As you journal, it may come out that you expect that a responsible adult would clean up after themselves (do you hear the biting tone of resentment?). This is the expectation that then leads to beliefs that your spouse is not responsible, is selfishly leaving these items on the floor without regard for the things that you value, and that therefore, they don’t seem to really care about you and your feelings.
Once you have a good list of those expectations, you can set to work evaluating whether they are realistic. Is my spouse irresponsible? Look at the evidence. Is this present in all areas of their life or could this be a task that falls to the wayside in caring for other details of work and home? Is it realistic to think the intention is neglectful of your feelings or is there another explanation for their difficulty in this area? If you let this expectation go, would you be able to appreciate the strengths that your partner brings to the relationship and have more happiness and satisfaction in your relationship? So, with every expectation you want to ask, is it realistic, is it important, and would I be happier if I let it go?
There will be some things that are absolutely non-negotiable. How do you know when something is non-negotiable? When you look ahead at the next 20 years, ask yourself if this thing that irritates you is something that you can live with never changing? If the vision of that makes you cringe and feel hopeless, then this is a non-negotiable. Now the question is, if you spoke with your spouse and expressed, not out of anger but out of a desire to build a deeper understanding of each other, would they make an effort to change in that area? If the answer is no, you need to decide whether to live with resentment or to step away. If it comes to this, I would encourage you to seek counseling, either for yourself or for you and your partner to give an opportunity to learn some communication skills and shed light on areas you both may be blinded to. Ultimately, you may find that although you don’t let go of that expectation for future relationships, as this one ends you will hold much less resentment when you let go of the expectation that your current partner will fulfill those desires.
What expectations do you have that are limiting your happiness?
Hannah Lindsay, MSW, LCSW, provides individual and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.