Expectations: The Silent Killer of Relationships

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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.

So what?

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.”

Why?

“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.”

Why?

“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.

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8 thoughts on “Expectations: The Silent Killer of Relationships”

  1. Good article!!!
    We do indeed not share enough our expectations properly.
    This is often because I or am not confident enough to express my expectations, thinking the other will think I am too high maintenance or demanding, and yes we sometimes hope people will meet our expectations without telling them out of love or care.

    For example: I know my boyfriend likes a nice breakfast, without him to express his expectation I arrange a nice breakfast for him, cause I care, I love him so I like to “please” him…. so yes I expect him to please and consider me too, without me asking him… but often he does not!
    I would find it great too if he organised for me a pick-nick for example because he knows I like that, without me needing to ask<
    giving things to people without them asking is for me consideration.
    Yes I expect unrequested consideration of my lover.
    Does that make sence?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Nathalie,

      I agree that it’s natural to expect unrequested acts of service/love from people you care about. I suppose the first question is whether or not you’ve told your boyfriend that you enjoy picnics? Or, better yet, that you’d appreciate it if he would plan one, or surprise you from time to time? While some might say having to have such a conversation is unromantic, I find it’s simply a part of having a healthy, open relationship. What to you may seem obvious (that you like picnics and/or unexpected surprises) may actually not be so obvious to your boyfriend. Thoughts?

      Michael

  2. This is awesome! However I have some points of concern with this method. I’ve tried expressing my clear expectations the best I could—and they were met with bitterness toward me and defensiveness for reasons why he wasn’t meeting my expectations. It didn’t go at all how I’d hoped (which is, humbly having an open mind to the other person’s POV, and at least trying to understand it). I also expressed THAT expectation that i would’ve hoped for him to be more open to the feedback and communication.
    Any thoughts on how to better express those expectations? And secondly, how to mitigate the emotional weight if the person refuses to meet them?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Alannah,

      This is tricky, and something I appreciate you bringing up, as this post doesn’t acknowledge or speak to that very important point: not everyone will honor (or even respect, unfortunately) our expectations or requests. And, to further clarify, I’m not suggesting they *have* to. Though we of course hope they will at least listen, validate, and be respectful enough to have a conversation around why those expectations won’t work for them, and work with us to find some common ground.

      At the end of the day, we are responsible for communicating our wants, needs, and expectations—just as it sounds you did. And, everyone else we talk to is responsible for the same. Sometimes, we get lucky, and the conversation goes well and our partner is happy to oblige. Other times, they aren’t willing (or able) to meet our expectations, but are happy to work with us to find some sort of compromise. And, still other times, they take offense (perhaps taking our comment personally), get defensive, and/or become aggressive, which effectively ends that discussion until they can get themselves back into truth and have a more respectful conversation.

      Obviously, it is difficult to give specific advice for your situation without knowing how the conversation started, what the asks were, a little more of your background together, etc. If you’re comfortable sharing a bit more, feel free to email me here so you don’t have to post it all publicly. 😉

      But as general advice, here are my thoughts:

      1. When communicating an expectation, consider making it a question rather than a demand. For example, “Here’s what I would like. Are you open to that?” This clearly communicates your expectation and invites discussion around it.

      2. Make it about you, not them. Rather than telling the other person how they’re not meeting your expectations, consider explaining your expectation as a discovery you’ve made about yourself. For example, instead of saying, “you never plan dates like you used to,” consider saying “I’m realizing I have an expectation that we’ll have a more formal date night every Friday, and I get bummed out when we end up just watching TV. I recognize that it may not be fair to expect that every week (“make” them angry—they are responsible for their own happiness. But not everyone knows how to have these conversations cordially. So taking this approach—and utilizing these language tweaks—can increase your chances of a respectful conversation.

      3. The other person needs to be humble. This one is completely out of your control, though there are some ways you can open the door to it. Generally, when someone gets defensive, it’s because they don’t feel heard or understood. So even if you share your thoughts using the techniques above, the other person may go right into defense mode. From there, a little validation can go a long way toward inviting them out of it.

      For example, if your spouse isn’t helping you tidy up the home at the end of the day, and they launch into how hard they work and why they feel they shouldn’t have to, you might say, “you’re right! You work *so* hard during the day—all the meetings, the calls, etc. I know are exhausting. And I’m sure helping me tidy up around the home is the *last* thing you want to do when you get home. It’s the last thing I want to do as well. And, it’s important to me that we keep a clean home. What can we do to make that happen?”

      I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts.

      Michael

  3. I’m in a relationship with a lovely man and I sometimes get frustrated at how he doesn’t seem to “care” about things I want. For example, I’ve expressed how much I love flowers and would appreciate it if he got them for me…we’re going on 11 months now and I’m yet to receive flowers. I try by all means to communicate my expectations to him but I’m starting to find it pointless because he never goes out of his way to meet them. Please help

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Keke,

      That’s tough. Without knowing more of the history between you two, it’s difficult to give advice. If you’ve already expressed the desire to be surprised to flowers by him, you will likely need to again as he seems to not have fully understood just how much you appreciate receiving them. You might say something like, “Hey, I know I’ve mentioned this before, and I’m frankly a little embarrassed to even say this [if that’s true], but it’d really mean a lot to me if you’d surprise me with flowers every now and then. I know it probably seems weird for me to outright ask for them, but I’m realizing that that’s important to me, and it’d mean a great deal if you’d do that. Is that something you’d be willing to do?”

      You’d obviously have to tweak that to be more how you’d speak, but hopefully it’s a starting place. Speaking generally, if someone doesn’t show up how we’re expecting, we need to 1) understand what we’re expecting, 2) ensure we’ve communicated those expectations, and 3) ensure they’ve agreed to try to meet those expectations.

      Many times, we think we’ve been clear about a request or an expectation, when the other person thought it was just a casual conversation and doesn’t realize they’ve committed to doing something. In your case, he may need to have things more clearly spelled out, and then be given the opportunity to actually say, “Oh, yes, I understand. And I’ll be happy to do that for you.” Once you do that, you’ll know he’s received the message and feels it’s reasonable. Then, if another 6-12 months go by without flowers, it’s entirely appropriate to raise the topic again and get curious: “Remember when we talked about the flowers? I’m curious why you haven’t gotten me any since we last spoke?”

      Relationships are tricky—no other way around it than to continuing to work on them, and keep that open communication.

      Michael

  4. My companion lives in my home. He has multiple health and emotional issues but is deep down a good person. He feels the need to “Mark his territory” and is constantly putting his “things” around the house.
    I feel it’s “my house” and he should respect my wishes but he does not. It is passive aggressive behavior. I don’t bring it up often because it causes a vile reaction . I just walk around resentful and angry sometimes picking up his junk and moving it which causes trouble. His reasons for doing this are complex and not necessarily to hurt me but rather to make up for his losses in life. I am just sick of all of it. Many times I want to toss him out on the street but his good qualities surface. Years of this…..

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Donna,

      That is tough. And, as you’re posting this comment on the “Expectations” article, I trust that you’ve recognized that you have an expectation that he’ll pick up after himself. (Which, I might add, is perfectly reasonable!). So it is your responsibility now to communicate that to him, and to set appropriate boundaries with him so you don’t keep walking around resenting him. While I understand that you don’t want to bring it up because of his vile reactions, that’s codependency speaking, and the alternative (you quietly resenting him) is not kind. I guarantee he feels it from you, which means you’ll both benefit by your opening up the wound, setting clear boundaries, and taking responsibility for your happiness.

      Now, as you have that conversation, I do recommend you study up on the language and validation techniques I teach here and on my podcast, as those will give you the best chance of success. But at the end of the day, he may still react negatively. At that point, you have to make a tough call: what are you and aren’t you willing to put up with? If he doesn’t change, can you get to a place where you’re genuinely happy anyway? If not, then you need to do something about it. Your happiness matters.

      Michael

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