This post is part of an ongoing series from my upcoming Highbrow Course: “10 Days to Better Relationships,” which is focused on—surprise!—improving your relationships.
Today we’re talking about expectations—the silent killer of relationships.
How aware are you of your day-to-day expectations? Of what you’re expecting from life, your significant other, or even the strangers you interact with? Chances are, you build out dozens—if not hundreds—of expectations each day. Chances are also good that you’re only aware of a small fraction of them.
Think of a recent interaction where you became frustrated, angry, or disappointed. This could be with a romantic partner, coworker, friend, or family member. What caused the upset? Did they leave dirty dishes in the sink? Did they not respond to your email or text? Did they not invite you to go out last weekend?
In most cases, the anger, frustration, or hurt you feel has more to do with your unmet expectations than it does with whatever actually happened.
Doing the Dishes
Say you come home one evening and notice that your roommate or spouse has left a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, for the hundredth time. “He always does this!” You think to yourself, fuming over his lack of respect. “I’ve asked him a thousand times to do the dishes and I still come home to a full sink!”
What’s your expectation here? That he’ll do the dishes, right? But what if he did do the dishes—just earlier that morning? Or what if he was planning to do them later that evening?
Your expectation here isn’t just that he’ll do the dishes, it’s that you’ll come home to a clean sink. It’s that he’ll do the dishes right before you get home, or not leave dirty dishes in the sink in the first place.
So the next question is: did you communicate those expectations to him? If you were specific about wanting to come home to a clean sink, then you may want to talk it over again. But if you said “please do your dishes more often,” can you really resent him for not knowing you actually meant “please make sure the sink is empty when I get home each night?”
In this situation, your resentment has nothing to do with your spouse or roommate. He did what you asked him to. Your resentment has to do with the fact that you had other expectations that you weren’t conscious of, but are still holding him accountable for.
Uncommunicated Expectations are The Problem
There is nothing wrong with expectations—even high expectations. It’s when we aren’t aware of those expectations, and/or don’t communicate them to people they involve, that we run into issues.
“My husband is so inconsiderate.”
“Because he doesn’t ever offer to help with the laundry.”
You have an expectation that your husband will offer to help with the laundry. Have you told him this? Maybe he’s willing, but thinks you enjoy it?
“I feel like my girlfriend doesn’t care about me.”
“Because she never texts me first. I’m always the one to send the first message. If I wait for her to reach out, she never does.”
You have an expectation that your girlfriend will initiate conversations with you. Have you told her that? What if she’s enamored by you, but believes it’s the man’s role to initiate things?
See how quickly a lack of awareness and communication can cause issues?
How to Recognize Hidden Expectations
To recognize hidden expectations, look for resentment or emotional turmoil in your life. Nine times out of ten, you’re upset because reality did not live up to your expectations.
- If you send a text to a friend and get upset when she doesn’t reply right away, you had an expectation that she would. Did you ask for an immediate response when you sent it?
- If you’re upset with your friends because you feel they weren’t thoughtful enough on your birthday, what were you expecting? A surprise party? An evening out together? Did you communicate any of that or just expect them to read your mind?
- If you get upset when your spouse comes home from work and plops down in front of the TV, what were you expecting them to do? Help make dinner? Watch the kids so you can have a break? Are they being rude or have you simply not communicated your expectations to them?
Got it? Try it.
Think of a person or situation you’re feeling upset about and do some digging for any unexpressed expectations. If you identify one or more, consider sharing them with that person. If you notice you have an expectation ahead of time, decide to either 1) be okay if it’s not met, or 2) communicate that expectation with the person it involves.
What do you think? Have you found this to be true in your life? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.