Aside from fuelling jokes about how women impose unrealistic standards on men, or how men are just grown-up children who want their wives to be their mothers, the expectations couples place on their relationship define how they relate to each other, and influence marital satisfaction.
The contemporary ideal puts us in the position of asking for everything to be done to a superlative degree by our life partner. Compared to 100 years ago, it’s safe to say that many aspects of society have unreasonable expectations. There is a chronic romanticization of love, by virtue of which we want our partner to be our lover, our best friend, therapist, and counsellor, and so on and so forth. We want them to help us become our best, turning marriage into an advanced personal development class.
“I wish that…”
At a theoretical level, expectations start to form in the stage preceding a relationship, when we build the image of the ideal future partner (“I wish that my husband or wife were…”). This image of the ideal partner is often one which has higher standards than we would generally consider reasonable for a strong relationship with a romantic partner.
Later, they take the form of specific requirements or relationship rules (“To make me happy you have to…”), stemming from the three major sources of learning: the family of origin, society, and personal experience.
In one form or another, all three teach us what to ask for and what to offer in a marriage. If society regulates aspects related to “packaging” (age of marriage, rights, legal obligations, and so on), family exposes us to personal attitudes and beliefs about marriage and intimacy.
The models of our parents and other reference couples give us concrete examples of:
- practical concerns, transposed into decisions and daily habits: roles in the household, relationships with the in-laws, religious beliefs, leisure, conflict resolution, budget management, and so on;
- harmonization of extremes, for a balanced couple life: stability vs. change, dependence vs. autonomy, intentionality vs. spontaneity, etc.;
- meeting the needs of affection, belonging, control, personal development, and affiliation with moral principles and values.
Closely related to ideas, experiences and feelings, expectations play an essential role in a couple’s relationship, so it is important that they are realistic relationship expectations.
It is unrealistic to demand the healing of emotional wounds, spiritual enlightenment, or self-perfection from our marriage. Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern University, encourages couples to recalibrate their marital expectations in terms of existential needs and to outsource certain roles assumed in the couple to other close members of the social network. He states that “there’s no shame at all in thinking of ways that you can ask less”.
Finkl’s recommendations are supported by the results of a study conducted at Northwestern University by Elaine Cheung, which showed that people who are emotionally charged from multiple sources have a better quality of life than those who make their partner responsible for the full range of feelings and emotions necessary for mental comfort.
We must not, therefore, assign to our partner the role of “jack of all trades”, the one solely responsible for our (permanent) well-being, nor become emotionally dependent on them. Unmet expectations can be damaging, but in a healthy relationship certain expectations can be assigned to other friends or people who specialise in different things more appropriate for the expectations you have.
The illusion of perfection
Another source of unrealistic expectations is the constant exposure to the online environment. Here, an invasion of perfection that transcends the screen of smart devices is let in, and it distorts our image of happiness. The embellished feelings captured on social networks create the illusion of perfection which, once confronted with reality, gives rise to comparisons and, implicitly, frustrations.
According to a 2013 study, 45% of young people (18-29 years old) admit that what they see on social networks affects their romantic relationships.
In order to avoid suffering caused by inordinately high standards, some psychologists recommend lowering expectations. Others say that higher standards actually protect us from disappointment. Among them is Donald Baucom, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, according to whom the only effective mechanism in the dynamics of expectation is the following principle: “People get what they expect”.
If we find ourselves frozen in fear of a potential refusal, convinced by our partner’s unavailability, or driven by low self-esteem, we inhibit our desires. This forced self-censorship will not reward us with a lasting and flourishing relationship, but with the burden of a misinterpreted compromise and with many subsequent grievances. Long term relationships cannot last with a form of resentment or inadequacy at their core.
Baucom concludes that only by really knowing our needs can we address appropriate “requests” to our partner, and this is a rule that works the other way around as well. Acknowledging one’s acute need for affection causes the husband, for example, to ask his wife for more attention, and to reject any opposing treatment, or look for someone who can naturally satisfy his needs. A healthy partnership is one where both involved meet their partner’s expectations (where those expectations are appropriate).
The essential criteria
High standards are justified only if they have a real basis and meet three essential criteria:
- Appropriateness: This involves setting expectations in accordance with:
- the stage of the relationship (we cannot expect to make plans for the honeymoon after a single date);
- the needs and resources of the partner (we cannot want to go for a hike every day if our partner does not have the time);
- the relevant objective factors.
- Flexibility: This involves adapting expectations to new changes, positive or negative, with an emphasis on patience, openness and attention to the needs of the other (professional changes, health problems, personal transformations, the birth of children, and so on).
- Accountability: This refers to the assertive communication of expectations, in a framework that denotes diplomacy in demanding that the other keeps their commitments.
The three essential criteria (“Are my expectations appropriate, flexible, reasonable?”) help us remain anchored in reality, but also filter the patterns taken from our own environment of growth and development. The model of our parents (or primary caregivers) is not always a beneficial one, able to inspire reasonable expectations, based on good self-knowledge and a correct understanding of the other’s needs. Here is where the need for self-regulation, and the conscious choice to detach ourselves from the pattern, make their appearance, interrupting the series of toxic habits that can generate some inappropriate expectations, including:
- lack of empathy and emotional unavailability = “I expect you to cope alone in difficult situations”;
- manipulation or blackmail as a method of resolving conflicts = “I expect you to give in, otherwise I won’t talk to you anymore”;
- prioritizing according to the needs of a single partner = “I expect you to always sacrifice your free time, so that I can solve my problems.”
Good enough relationships
Perhaps high expectations, when sacrificed on the altar of reason through necessary compromises, do not give rise to ideal marriages, but maintain what specialists consider to be “good enough relationships”. Despite the not-very-alluring name and the distance from an intangible (ideal) model, good enough relationships are distinguished by the fact that they can meet the following needs:
- to be treated with gentleness, compassion, respect
- to receive love and affection
- to not be humiliated, neglected or abused
- to not be deceived
- to interact intimately, deeply
- to be valued
Even if they still quarrel, partners involved in such relationships know which battles to choose, an extremely useful skill considering that “when choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems” (Dr Dan Wile, author and couples therapist).
Statistically speaking, 70% of quarrels come from an inability to accept our partner’s mistakes. Taking into account the fact that most conflicts have recurring themes, at the end of the day, what matters is how we deal with problems, and not how many of them we manage to cross off the list. How we view our husband or our wife is important.
Although they do not have the secret of full harmony, the protagonists of “good enough” relationships have a high degree of marital satisfaction, being willing to accept the imperfections of the couple and to shape their expectations according to the situation. Being able to cultivate good expectations helps them fight vulnerabilities and start a family based on:
- authentic friendship
- mutual trust
- the science of constructively managing conflicts
- the science of making compromises that work
- a satisfying sex life
- the ability to apologize and tend to each other’s wounds
- accepting differences
- sharing a system of similar values, beliefs, habits and aspirations
Expectations weigh heavily on a couple, and they even decide their fate. Therefore, their role should not be underestimated, but understood in-depth, like an important pillar, on which the future of the relationship depends.