By: Shaila Anjum
Though it is quite natural to have expectations, especially in a relationship, it can also present itself as a double-edged sword. You should be able to expect kindness, care, and some level of sacrifice or compromises in a healthy relationship. For example, sometimes you cook, sometimes your partner does when you come home from a long and tiring day at work. Sometimes your partner may have to pick up the slack if you are going through a tough time. When picking the ideal first home together, job opportunities, current career and perhaps a neighbourhood you both find acceptable may require sacrifices and compromises from both of you. These things are all normal and important in healthy relationships. However, research shows that having met expectations can lead to losing appreciation or taking your partner for granted which can affect relationship satisfaction. However, having unmet expectations can lead to disappointment, and chronic disappointment can affect your mental health. Talk about a double whammy!
A strong negative correlation was found in a study with over 200 participants between high partner expectations and appreciation (Zoppolat, Visserman & Righetti, 2020). This means that as expectations of sacrifice increase, partner appreciation decreases. However, as discussed earlier, expectations are a normal and inevitable part of relationships. Having low expectations in relationships shows evidence of higher appreciation than having high expectations. In turn, lack of appreciation may lead to your partner putting in less effort to make sacrifices or meet your expectations, thus resulting in a decrease of relationship satisfaction.
David Rock, the director of NeuroLeadership Institute explains how good things meeting our expectations cause an increase in dopamine- the ‘feel good hormone’ (Tugend, 2012). However, when something does not meet our expectation, even to the smallest degree, there is a much more significant drop. Neuro Functionality when something does not meet our expectation can be seen in the autonomic nervous system - our fight or flight response. If something does not pan out the way we expected, our brain basically sends a signal similar to that of danger and panic (Tugend, 2012). This is a much more significant drop than the little dopamine we would gain from having met expectations. No wonder it is so easy to fixate on one negative than 10 positives!
How do you find the balance?
Personally, I try to show appreciation whenever and wherever possible. Remind yourself, no one owes you anything. Practice keeping expectations at a low. Perhaps have a gratitude journal, in which you write a couple things about your partner every now and then. Practicing positive affirmations and showing appreciation can be a simple tool that can take your relationship to new realms. Everyone wants to feel appreciated and loved. Holding expectations is a natural phenomena and can be realistically kept in a healthy relationship as long as it is balanced with awareness and appreciation.
Christine Hassler’s book Expectation Hangover (2016) outlines all the ways in which we let expectations dictate our life: emotionally, mentally, spiritually and behaviourally. In this book, she outlines the ways in which you can overcome what she calls the expectation hangover in these four realms. Hassler mentions that we normally react to disappointment by our partners by feeling upset, trying to control or manipulate them to meet our expectations. She then says, if we were to accept them the way they are, they are more likely to be happy in the relationship and have an increased willingness to change themselves to be the best for you. Though this is not always the outcome and you should not have that expectation (there is that word again), there are healthier ways of reaching happiness.
Hassler outlines what people typically do when their expectations are left unmet: distract themselves by adding more on their plate, numb the emotions by reaching for something destructive like alcohol or substances, using pep talks to affirm their emotions, trying to power through the emotions by putting them in the sidelines, seeking a new big project as a distraction, or taking the spiritual route and looking for the hidden positive or lesson.
Though some of these may sound like problem solvers, don’t be fooled! Emotional healing requires facing those emotions. Sidelining them by replacing them with something conceptually positive is still shoving those emotions to the sidelines! Ultimately, a lot of Hassler’s remedies are similar to that of practicing acceptance and dealing with the emotional battle which in relationships involving at least two people can only occur with effective communication between the two.
The best thing you can do is learn to rationalize and accept your thoughts as well as effectively communicate your thought process to your partner. Create that understanding and have the doors of communication open. This will also allow for better appreciation of one another! Once again, expectations are an inevitable phenomena, however, we can learn how to better cope, regulate and adapt through disappointment and keep our expectations realistic!
Hassler, C. (2016). Expectation Hangover: Free Yourself from Your Past, Change Your Present & Get What You Really Want. New World Library.
Tugend, A. (2012). What did you expect? It makes a difference. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/your-money/the-importance-of-setting-expectations-whether-high-or-low.html
Zoppolat, G., Visserman, M. L., & Righetti, F. (2020). A nice surprise: Sacrifice expectations and partner appreciation in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(2), 450-466.