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Expectations in Relationships

Navigating Expectations in Relationships: Building a Stronger Connection

Expectations play a crucial role in any relationship, serving as a framework for how partners interact and understand each other. Understanding these expectations and aligning them can significantly impact the health and longevity of a relationship. Research shows that aligned expectations, particularly around emotional connection and responsiveness, are key predictors of relationship satisfaction and stability over time. 

What Are Expectations in a Relationship? 

Expectations in a relationship encompass a wide array of beliefs and assumptions that partners hold about each other and the relationship. These expectations can be explicit or implicit, often formed through early life experiences and attachment patterns. They guide how individuals interact, regulate emotions together, and fulfill each other’s intimacy needs.

On a practical level, expectations can include how partners handle conflict, show love through physical touch and affection, and balance togetherness vs. individual pursuits. For example, one partner might expect frequent physical affection as a sign of love, while the other expresses love through acts of service. Recognizing and appreciating these different “love languages” is key.

Expectations also cover the division of responsibilities to meet each other’s functional needs. One partner might assume chores are divided 50/50, while the other expects a fair division based on time and ability. These assumptions draw from family of origin patterns and must be consciously discussed.

Finances are another critical area. Partners might have different impulses toward saving vs. spending based on their sense of financial security and autonomy needs. Understanding these underlying emotional drivers of financial expectations is crucial.

Expectations for turning toward each other for emotional support in times of stress are also key. Some individuals expect their partner to be their primary “secure base” and “safe haven”, terms that describe the security and soothing a responsive partner provides. Others might lean more on coping themselves or turning to friends. Clarifying these expectations can ensure both feel seen and supported.

Sexual expectations are a vulnerable and significant component. Differences in desire for novelty vs. predictability, synchrony and separateness during sex are common. Voicing these openly with empathy builds erotic connection.

Lastly, expectations can extend to future dreams, including each individual’s needs for growth, purpose and shared meaning together. One partner might expect a trajectory of adventure and new horizons, while the other desires deepening roots and continuity. Lovingly holding space for both is an art. Why Expectations in a Relationship Can Cause Problems Uncommunicated, unrealistic, or misaligned expectations often cause relationship distress. This happens when partners make assumptions rather than clearly and continually expressing core needs.

One common issue is mismatched expectations of quantity vs. quality time. For instance, one partner might expect frequent weekend adventures, while the other wants restorative downtime. Without unpacking these differing regeneration needs, resentment or withdrawal can occur.

Another example involves communication styles. One partner might expect lengthy processing of feelings, while the other prefers concise, solution-focused conversations. This can lead to experiences of either emotional flooding or coldness.

Financial conflicts also frequently result from unchecked expectations. If one partner expects full transparency and joint decisions, while the other assumes more individual latitude, trust issues and power struggles can arise. Learning to understand each other’s underlying autonomy and security needs driving these expectations is key.

Household responsibilities are another pain point. Unvoiced expectations of fairness or valuing of different contributions breeds resentment. Hiring help, expressing appreciation, and playfully dividing tasks can help.

Differing expectations around closeness and separateness are also common. If one person expects a “you and me against the world” stance, while the other expects more friend and family involvement, hurt or jealousy can occur. Negotiating a flexible intimacy can honor both needs.

Sexual desire discrepancies are another frequent source of frustration. If one partner expects spontaneous passion, while the other prefers planned intimacy, experiences of rejection or pressure result. Respecting arousal differences while staying erotically engaged is a dance.

Lastly, future dreams can collide. One partner might expect kids and settling down on a particular timeline. If the other partner expects more freedom to explore, existential divergence can occur. Supporting each other’s growth while also committing is an ongoing balance. 

Types of Expectations 

Expectations in relationships can be broadly categorized into reasonable and unrealistic expectations. Distinguishing between these is key to creating a secure functioning relationship. 

Reasonable Expectations 

Reasonable expectations are fair, honoring of both partner’s needs, and foster connection. These include respect, responsiveness, responsibility, and repair.

  • Respect: Honoring each other’s physical and emotional boundaries, unique perspectives and autonomy needs. Respecting a partner’s “no” and delighting in their “yes” fosters differentiation and desire. 
  • Responsiveness: Being emotionally present, validating feelings, showing empathy, and providing soothing touch or words when a partner is disturbed or dysregulated. This “attunement” is the heart of secure attachment. 
  • Responsibility: Owning one’s part in communication breakdowns, behavior patterns, and unmet needs. “Self-confronting” with accountability and vulnerability builds trust and maturity in the relationship.
  • Repair: Reaching for reconnection after ruptures, leading with “soft startups”, and extending apologies and forgiveness. Mastering repair is more important than avoiding conflict altogether. 

Unrealistic Expectations

Unrealistic expectations are rigid “shoulds” that constrict connection and growth. These include expecting constant harmony, mind-reading, identical interests, and unchanging passion.

  • Perfection: Expecting a partner to never disappoint or a relationship to be perpetually blissful is a setup for disillusionment. Rupture is inevitable; repair is learnable. Expecting perfection stifles vulnerability.
  • Mind-Reading: Expecting a partner to intuit one’s every need without clear expression leads to toxic “testing” of love. Explicit communication is necessary, especially when needs change.
  • Complete Overlap: Expecting a partner to fulfill one’s every need, interest and dream is merging fantasy that crushes separateness. Otherness is the basis for maintaining vitality and attraction. Get a life to have a life together! 
  • Passion: Expecting the euphoria or frequency of early romance to remain constant is a biologically doomed hope. Committed love is an active practice of imagination, embodiment and intersubjective discovery. Craft a couple bubble of meaning.

Strategies for Aligning Expectations 

Aligning expectations in a relationship requires intentional effort and ongoing communication. Here are some practical strategies informed by somatic, EFT, and Gottman approaches:

  • Open Communication: Move from “talking at” to engaged dialogue. Take turns being a generous listener, reflecting the feelings and needs underneath the content you hear. This felt sense of being understood regulates the nervous system and builds secure bonding. 
  • Dream Together: Set aside time to imagine your ideal day, week, year and decade together. What activities, rituals and adventures would be most nourishing? How might you balance “I”,”you” and “we” time? This shared dreaming stokes aliveness and co-creates your couple bubble. 
  • Create We-ness: Reflect together on the symbolic meaning behind your household and financial norms. What legacy and values do you want to build together? What unique relationship culture do you want to create? Distill a relational purpose statement to guide expectations. 
  • Presume Welcome: Rather than brace against expected rejection, experiment with presuming your partner welcomes your bids for connection. Playfully and vulnerably share your needs, trusting your partner will understand the positive need underneath any clumsy reaching. Respond to their bids with “yes, and…”
  • Stay Present: When communicating charged material, stay somatically grounded and emotionally present rather than flooding or fleeing. 
  • Use “I feel” statements, eye gaze, touch, and nervous system soothing skills like deep breathing to tolerate intensity and ride emotional waves together. 
  • Process Fights: Rather than sweep conflict under the rug, schedule time to unpack the threats, feelings and unmet needs underneath your fights. Approach this processing with curiosity not blame. Highlight and savor the successful repairs and new possibilities you open together. 
  • Update Your Love Maps: Gottman’s research shows that partners who maintain a richly detailed cognitive “love map” about each other’s inner worlds fare the best. Set aside weekly time to delight in each other’s evolving needs, fears, hopes, and dreams. This turns expectations into an evolving intimate travelogue. 
  • Get Support: Just like going to the gym with a trainer propels fitness forward, working with a couple therapist can deepen intimacy skills and overcome entrenched patterns. A capable couple therapist can guide you in updating your expectations and becoming each other’s best expert and advocate.

By implementing these practices with compassion, creativity, and commitment, partners can align expectations around the profound purpose of their relationship. As the poet Rilke wisely wrote, “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of their solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.” Aligned expectations, fundamentally, are about honoring each other’s precious vulnerability and holding it safe, so love can blaze brightly through the years.