In Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, we follow a young, idealistic boy eager to make the most out of life. However, after many painful experiences, he starts to realize that achieving his dreams is not as simple as it seemed. The once bright-eyed protagonist begins to feel bitter, broken, and disappointed.
Dickens was right—often our expectations are too great for our own good. Whether it’s for our jobs, relationships, or any other aspect of life–it’s only natural to want the best for ourselves. However, if our imaginations are too spectacular, it becomes increasingly unrealistic to fulfill our desires.
So, is it unhealthy to have expectations within a relationship? Let’s break it down.
Expectations Vs. Reality
What are expectations? Simply put, expectations are desires or hopes for the future state of things. Often, the expectations we hold develop unconsciously. They can be programmed within our psyche by the media we consume, by our culture, family, or the opinions of others.
When it comes to dating and relationships, it’s normal to hold some sort of expectation of how you’d like things to work out. But, expectations that are too high, rigid, or idealistic can lead to feelings of disappointment or resentment towards one’s partner. Often, this leads to arguments and breakups.
Having expectations too soon in a relationship might also limit romantic possibilities. For example, expecting that a future partner will be of a certain age, physical appearance, or economic status risks eliminating any potential matches that could have otherwise been compatible.
Expectations are fluid–they can vary constantly throughout our lives. As our circumstances change, we learn more about ourselves or others, and as we enter new stages in life, we can expect that our expectations will change, too.
Even after we’ve entered into a relationship, our expectations are still subject to change. In fact, that’s when a shift is the most likely.
Often it’s when the title of the relationship changes, that the expectations change, too. Let’s consider some examples:
Ally and Nick have only been on a couple of dates, but things seem to be off to a great start. There is obvious chemistry between them and Aly laughs at all of Nick’s jokes. In time, Nick decides to ask Ally to be his girlfriend. With this new official title, Ally is suddenly flooded with expectations of both herself and of Nick. Although it didn’t bother her before, now that they’re a couple, Ally gets irritated if Nick takes too long to respond to her texts. Taking it as a sign of disinterest, Ally decides to break things off with Nick.
Not long after returning from the Honeymoon, Stephanie is assigned a new project at work, causing her to stay later than usual. Her new husband, Jacob, soon finds himself spending most evenings at home alone. Feeling that Stephanie spends more time at the office than helping out at home, he tries to communicate her concerns to her. She shrugs and says, “This is my work. You have to respect that.”
In both of these examples, new expectations crept up within the relationship as the title or status changed. When Nick asked Ally to be his girlfriend, he was unaware of the subconscious standards that the title held for Ally. When Nick failed to meet Ally’s unspoken expectations as a boyfriend, Ally decided the relationship was no longer worth pursuing.
After getting married, Stephanie and Jacob quickly realized there had been a misunderstanding in expectations for their relationship. Jacob felt neglected as a new husband. Meanwhile, Stephanie was annoyed at Jacob’s apparent entitlement to her career.
The point is that expectations are not fixed. They are fluid and change constantly. They often hide within us subconsciously, only rearing their heads when we realize our reality is not as imagined. Since we are mostly unaware of our expectations, it is extremely difficult to communicate them to our partners before it’s too late. All of this together makes keeping up with both partners’ expectations an impossible feat.
Expectations, Needs, and Boundaries
But, isn’t it healthy to have some expectations of a relationship?
As Alexander Hamilton once said: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
Having some standards for a relationship is both normal and healthy. However, it’s important to distinguish between expectations, needs, and boundaries.
As discussed above, expectations can be described as desires for the future of the relationship. Often overly idealistic, they can lead to disappointment when an imperfect partner doesn’t live up to expectations.
On the other hand, needs and boundaries are healthy standards set within a relationship. Unlike expectations, these are usually fixed–as in set as limits or necessities that must be respected in order for the relationship to succeed.
Boundaries, also known as “deal breakers,” often deal with negative behavior that will not be tolerated. Boundaries keep partners safe and comfortable in the relationship. Couples can have boundaries surrounding their time, money, work, friends, family, sex, and more.
Needs are conditions that help partners to feel fulfilled within a relationship. Common needs include the need for respectful communication, loyalty, and deep connection.
Let’s look back at the examples of Ally and Jacob, mentioned earlier. Was it that they felt genuinely hurt by their partners? Or, are they disappointed that the reality of their relationship was not as special as they had imagined?
Ally really liked Mike and besides his lacking texts–he seemed to be a loving and caring partner. Nonetheless, her expectations of how a boyfriend should act got in her way. Instead of communicating her feelings with Mike, she decided to just give up.
Jacob and Stephanie had been living under contradictory expectations. Jacob always admired Stephanie’s ambition and work ethic. But, after getting married, his parents made comments about how a “good wife” shouldn’t work “so much.”
Expectations are tricky things. But, by first identifying, analyzing, and communicating their expectations to their partners, these couples make it easier to find common ground.
Having some level of expectations is, well, to be expected. It’s nearly impossible to reach a level of zen indifference so that you expect nothing out of a relationship.
Too many expectations–and too unrealistic of expectations will only cause harm. So, how do you let go of expectations that aren’t serving you or your partner?
- Are my expectations realistic? For example: If I expect to be in a relationship with a successful, wealthy partner, do I also expect them to have unlimited free time?
- Are my expectations based on my feelings and experiences or from those of others? I.e. from the shows we watch, what our families say, or comparing ourselves to our friends’ relationships.
- Have I clearly expressed my expectations to my partner? Do they share similar expectations?
- Am I willing to be flexible with my expectations?
The key to healthy expectations is knowing that they have limits. They are like lights, illuminating your path forward. Just like a lamp, they can turn on, off, shine dim or bright–depending on our circumstances and emotions. As long as you keep expectations in their place, then you will stay on the bright path to relationship success.