How Expectations Derail Relationships

You’ve been pulling a lot of long days on your job and feel hurt when your supervisor doesn’t seem to notice. You make a fancy dinner and are resentful when your partner seems unfazed by your efforts. You take your kids to Disney World for a vacation, and rather than being appreciative, all they do is whine and complain and fight in the back seat of the car; you’re annoyed.

The hurt, resentment, annoyance are all the product of expectations that you have about how the other person should respond to you and your efforts. Sometimes these expectations are absolutely clear and specific: You and your boss agree that if you exceed your sales quota, you’ll get that promotion; you and your partner agree that if you stay home from work for a sick child, he’ll do the same when the next sick-event comes up. When the deal is broken — the promotion doesn’t happen, your partner isn’t willing to stay home on the next round — you’re rightfully upset.

Other times expectations are more general and built into your vision of the overall relationship. Because your boss and partner are generally appreciative, you can overlook your boss’ or partner’s lack of appreciation for your overtime, the dinner, because you know your boss, like you, is slammed with work and has tunnel-vision, or your partner is stressed out that night from a particularly difficult work-day. You might feel a twinge of disappointment, but you’re able to take it in stride. Overall the relationship is balanced.

Problems arise when these isolated incidents turn to be not so isolated, but are, in fact, part of bigger pattern — your boss or partner (or the kids) seem to be never appreciative of you. Now it’s hard to let the overtime, the dinner go because this is the tip of the iceberg of an unbalanced relationship. You have a vision of how the relationship should work, how you feel you should be treated. You are not getting enough back, not treated the way you expect. you are angry and resentful. It can lead to blow-ups, often over seemingly small issues, or acting out — your resentment becoming a rationale for having an affair, drinking too much, buying an expensive bike or clothes. The relationship becomes derailed.

Obviously, the way to get the relationship back on track is to have a conversation about the vision, the larger patterns, the seeming imbalance. You want to conversation to be two-sided, rather than a one-sided rant. You want to understand your boss’ or partner’s views of relationship and her own expectations. You want to avoid arguing over whose reality is right, and instead see if you can both get on the same page, work together to clarify what each’s expectations are in a clear, behavioral way. While this can be emotionally challenging, the goal and process are fairly straight-forward: Solve the problem in a win-win way.

This is all about the relationship side of expectations, the clarifying and communicating and negotiating. But there’s often an individual piece to all this that can get overlooked. Here we’re talking about your side of the equation, how you go making decisions and taking responsibility for them; about the danger of building-in expectations at the front-door of your decisions. Here you decide to do what you do, but part of your motivation is driven by what you are expecting in return. You’re slipping to martyr-like behavior.

So, you work the overtime, all the time imagining how grateful your supervisor will be, and maybe even fantasizing about that promotion. You make the dinner with the desire to impress your partner and receive appreciation clearly in mind. You make the trek to Disney World imagining how your kids will say from the back seat of the car that yes, this was the best day ever in their lives. And when this totally inside-your-head masterplan doesn’t come together, you feel defeated, resentful, dissed.

The way to avoid setting yourself up for such disappointment is to stop the martyrish role, and take complete responsibility for your own decisions, which means making them from the start without any expectations. Do what you do because you want to do it. The want may be driven by your own passions — the desire to see if you can create the gourmet dinner; it may be driven by your values — that stepping-up at work is part of being a good team player, or your notion of being a good parent translates into taking your kids to Disney world in order to give them exciting childhood experiences. By taking this approach, you sidestep the resentment that comes from unfulfilled expectations.

But another benefit of this approach is that you are living more in the moment. To be thinking about expectations, like always worrying, is always living in the future — what you want to happen, what may happen. If you live in that zone where each decision is only a decision about right now and nothing more, you are truly living in the present, you are being mindful.

If this argument resonates with you, if you realize that your martyr-like behaviors may be contributing to your disappointments and resentments, maybe it’s time to rework the way you make decisions. Here are some ways you can begin to reshape your decision-making process:

Slow it down

“I do this because I should do this;” “I automatically step up and work overtime when asked.” If you tend to have a martyr, make-everyone-happy personality, if you tend to be rule-driven and / or self-critical you are likely making a lot of your decisions on autopilot: You do what you do because you do what you do. What is being left out of the equation is what you really want. 

Time to slow things down and experiment. Pick a day, maybe a day when you are not at work, and before you do anything, ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Is this something you should do than want to do? Do you have any expectations of the results? 

Practice making your decisions with no expectations

Work overtime — it’s okay, stepping up for team. The dinner — something I’m making for me. Disney world — an experience I want to give to my kids regardless of how they may behave. Practice applying this everyday situations: when ordering a sandwich for lunch, going out on a date, posting something on Facebook. Do, let go, expect nothing more.

View each decision as a separate decision

We naturally tend to thread decisions together with anxiety about the future or regret about the past, which makes even small decisions…complicated. Experiment with viewing each decision, however big or small, as one discreet decision that you are making right now; the next decision is a new, independent one. Pull back from letting your mind gallop forward into the past or future or linking decisions into some complex web.

Adopting this point of view is a matter of practice and with practice gets easier over time. But if you can cultivate a life where your decisions are based on what you believe, value, and want in the moment, rather than basing them one other’s reactions and emotions, you are in charge of your life. Not a bad place to be.  

Try it. See where this leads you.


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