Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship: Managing Your Expectations
When it comes to love, most of us bought the fairy tale. We were raised on stories that promised us that once we found Prince or Princess Charming, everything else would take care of itself. Love was reduced to a simple problem of location. Locate the Prince/Princess and live happily ever after. End of story. Close the book.
So naturally we just expect true love will always be perfect love.
Nothing like a little dose of reality to puncture that bubble!
The fact is that we all enter relationships with "Great Expectations." Many times they are not even ones that we are conscious of having. The problem is that having great expectations can wreak great havoc on the reality of any relationship. One of the most important characteristics of a healthy relationship is to learn how to turn these expectations into practical preferences.
It is one thing to have preferences, practical ones, that you can express to your mate. "I would prefer if you are going to be late for dinner that you would call and let me know." That is an example of a desire expressed as a preference. You may even have to express it (sweetly) several times to reinforce new behavior. And, over time it will likely be addressed by a well-intentioned partner.
On the other hand, you won’t likely get much cooperation if you just impose your expectations by announcing: "I expect you to be home when I make dinner!" You'd probably just get more resistance. The nice thing about preferences is that they give the other person the space to say "yes" to you. Demands attract and create no’s. Or worse, apparent compliance, then passive resistance, in return. The characteristic of a healthy relationship is being able to state your desires as preferences instead of demands.
If you enter a relationship with a long list of expectations that you only realize are there when they're not being met, this is a set up for trouble. Unspoken expectations are the prelude for unproductive arguments and repeated disappointments. Expectations you don’t even realize are driving your upset are the cause of many arguments. Learning how to manage your expectations, and understand which ones are really fair and which ones are really just your hidden strategy to try to “get your way," is the secret of a healthy relationship.
Mike and Lesley got married one year ago, and they didn't live happily ever after. What follows is an example of how some relatively small, but unexpressed expectations complicate their life and ruin a Saturday morning.
MIKE: I have no clean socks again!
LESLEY: I'm sorry! I spent the whole morning cleaning out the bathroom. I didn't get to the laundry.
MIKE: Is it too much to ask to have clean socks?! My mother always looked in my father's drawer to see if he was low on anything!
LESLEY: Well, your mother was just the paragon of perfection!
MIKE: I just want a wife who thinks about her husband's needs once in awhile!
LESLEY: How could I not think about them?! You announce them every five minutes. I was hoping you could be a little more adult, and wash your own clothes once in awhile!!
Like Lesley and Mike, many couples confuse value expectations with behavioral expectations. It's one thing to communicate value expectations such as your desire to have a partner act caring, honest, loyal, considerate and compassionate. It's quite another thing to automatically assume they will do the exact behaviors you want. To expect that they will translate your values into behaviors is a set up for disappointment.
If you expect your partner to always do your laundry, or anticipate your needs, to make a certain amount of money, to always have sex, and to never forget anything important, you will spend a lot of time struggling over behavioral disappointments that are really about unexpressed values and deeper needs that aren’t being met. It is your job to take a look at and manage your expectations so they don’t turn into devouring monsters.
One of the characteristics of a healthy relationship is that each partner is aware of their expectations, and can ask for specific behaviors as a polite and gentle request. This way expectations don’t sabotage love.
Life can be much less of a struggle when you separate your core expectations about values-- like what a "good" wife or husband should (automatically) do, from your practical requests for specific behavior. One reason for doing this is that people can change their behavior more easily than they can change their value systems.
If I ask you to do a specific action such as “Would you please wash my socks?" your partner can say yes or no. If I say “I expect you to take good care of me!" that is too vague. It is not a specific do-able action. It is an example of an unreasonable expectation, because your partner may have no clue how to deliver on such a vague request or expectation. Your partner would have to be a mind-reader to know how to translate that very legitimate need for caring, into a specific action that will make your feel cared for.
To find out if your expectations are reasonable, and relate to the present time, as opposed to old childhood issues, for example, make a list of expectations you have of your partner. Ask them to make a list of the expectations they have of you. Compare lists with each other. I guarantee you will make some discoveries! If you find you have a lot of general comments like “I expect you to make me happy," or “make me feel safe," these can be clues that not only do they relate to your past, but they are not concrete enough for your partner to know how to address them. If you say “Please call me when your flight lands so I can know you are safe," that is a very do-able request.
It just takes a little practice to learn how to express your desires as preferences instead of expectations or demands. Let's see how this one change in managing expectations and turning them into preferences can make life and love easier for Mike and Lesley.
MIKE: I don't have any clean socks. I sure would like it if you could do the laundry more often.
LESLEY: Okay, I'll try to do it more often. And I'd like it if when you know you are running low, you told me, or maybe you could do a load once in awhile yourself.
MIKE: I guess that's fair enough. Why should I expect you to know more about my socks than I do?
LESLEY: Hallelujah!! Maybe we can end this sock war once and for all!
Expressing your expectations as preferences will give you a much greater chance of having them met. Discipline yourself to do this. This is one of the characteristics of a healthy relationship that makes a huge difference. Chances are you'll get a lot more cooperation, instead of tired old arguments. You will certainly increase your chances of living a whole lot happier-ever- after. Manage your expectations by turning them into specific requests and preferences, and you will have a lot less disappointment in your love life.