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How To Set Expectations in a Relationship – 6 Relationship Experts Share Invaluable Insights

by Randi Gunther – Phd, Kimberly Atwood – MLA, LMFT, Cynthia Pickett  – LCSW, LADC, Amy Sherman  – M.A., LMHC, Amanda Patterson  – LMHC and Sally LeBoy – MS, MFT

How To Set Expectations in a Relationship

“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.”

~ Brandon Sanderson

Expectations were like fine pottery Brandon Sanderson Quote
Randi Gunther

In addition, because a relationship requires two people, all expectations are tandem deals. 

  • What is an entitlement to one partner might not even be on the radar of the other’s reality. 
  • What one partner will only do under certain conditions might be easily offered by the other. 
  • What is a possibility in one relationship may be a totally unreasonable requirement in another.

To add one more complication, if you are honest about your own inventory of available resources, you will know that you have certain gifts, talents, capabilities, competencies, and potential that are brought out at the other end of some lovers and are out of your own reach when the triggers don’t emerge as needed. 

That is also true of your current lover. 

He or she may want things from you that you aren’t comfortable offering up until you are certain that criteria are met to ensure that vulnerability won’t be betrayed, or has a set of expectations that worked in a prior relationship but are highly unlikely to ever work with you.

There is even another twist: some people do feel entitled to whatever they want even if the other person is not motivated or able to provide it. 

That often happens when a potential partner feels that he or she is “partnering” down, i.e, connecting with someone of lesser marketability. That over-confident partner may just assume obligatory accommodations, feeling that the other is lucky to be in the relationship.

Many people are unrealistic about what they have a right to expect from an intimate partner. 

They can have grown up with one parent who appears to give without the need for remuneration while the other can have whatever he or she wants without any apparent guilt. 

Or, they see other adult relationships where needs seem easily met, and feel they deserve the same comfort. 

They might not have looked at the relationship history of their new partner, realizing that people tend to repeat the same patterns unless they have a personal need to change. Thinking that a new person can be the “one” who changes those prior patterns can be a fantasy that is hard to let go of.

All these potential complications point to one immutable fact: New lovers need to talk openly to one another about three crucial agreements. 

The first is what each person wants, wishes, or expects from the other partner. 

The second is what they have to offer freely, what they can bargain with, and what they cannot ever do. 

Negotiations of those kinds are not anti-romantic. They actually can ensure that romantic support in times of need is more likely to happen because both partners know what to expect.

Those conversations must not include unrealistic agreements that are unlikely to ever happen, just to win a person over in the beginning. They must also not include unrealistic expectations that, if either partner just gets what he or she wants, they can easily break old habits. Those promises are doomed to fail over time.

There are those unusual and highly unlikely relationships where expectations and availabilities automatically dovetail. That doesn’t mean that the couple shouldn’t follow the same rules. 

Often, when things seem the easiest, both partners are not in touch with what they might need or want as the relationship matures. 

Once their competent and authentic capacity for sharing is established, they can revert back to that open conversation when they need to in the future.

Dr. Randi Gunther – www.randigunther.com

Kimberly Atwood

I think expectations tend to sort themselves out throughout the course of the relationship in general. 

I am not sure that creating a firm set of expectations is realistic, though there do seem to be a few common non-negotiables, such as feeling respected.

It is much more important to know how you feel about the way things are unfolding within a relationship. 

  • Is your partner respectful of your time? 
  • Do you feel cared for or neglected? Does he cancel plans at the last minute and expect you to not be upset? 
  • If issues arise, do you feel confident and comfortable bringing these up with your partner? 
  • If you would like something to change, do you feel worthy of asking?

I remember various times throughout my dating experience when I felt completely disrespected and neglected by past boyfriends. 

However, I allowed this poor treatment to continue by choosing not to address these issues and “brushing them under the rug.” These were red flags that I ignored. I did not feel worthy of asking for change or empowered enough to start such a conversation. It was easier to let them continue to treat me like dirt, unfortunately, so I did.

In retrospect, they were not right for me anyway and I would have been better off leaving each of those relationships much sooner. 

At the time, I did not have enough self-worth and self-respect to demand the respect I deserved from them.

Ultimately, it often comes down to how you allow yourself to be treated.

Kimberly Atwood, MA, LPC – www.KimAtwood.com

Cynthia Pickett

I don’t believe there is room for expectations in any relationship. 

They are not healthy; they set us up on an emotional roller coaster, which is exhausting. We are happy when people follow our expectations and then upset/angry when they don’t. 

Also, expectations are a mechanism for controlling our partners, which will ultimately kill the relationship. 

Having said that I should clarify having expectations with children as a teaching tool is another issue. “I expect you to clean your room, brush your teeth, get good grades”, etc. is fine but our partners are not our children so expectations are best left out of our adult relationships.

Truthfully, expectations are really about molding, conforming, and changing someone to meet our ideals. 

That is incredibly disrespectful to our friends and partner. 

Instead of setting expectations ask yourself 

  • Why you have them? 
  • Do you not really like/love the person just the way they are? 
  • Are you so afraid of being hurt that you want to control them? 
  • Are you projecting your own insecurities upon them? 

All of these are reasons for self-exploration and healing not for setting expectations.

Separate from expectations are deal breakers. 

These are not expectations but rather they are your own personal lines in the sand. Your own relationship values, they are the way you will conduct yourself and what behavior you will accept or not accept from your partner. These are things like lying, cheating, stealing, violence, and name-calling. 

Not controlling things like “you waited two-hours before texting me back” which is the kind of stuff that kills a relationship. It is also up to you to decide if you will accept any transgressions in the deal breaker areas.

Your relationship values will naturally come up in conversation as the relationship progresses. 

However, if you are moving in together and still don’t know your partners values and have not communicated yours then it is time to bring it up.

If your partner really wants to be in relationship with you they will respect your values; if it is not important they won’t. This is very clearly where actions speak much louder than words.

Cynthia Pickett, LCSW, LADC – www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/cynthia-pickett-reno

Amy Sherman

Women can be vulnerable to “fairy tale” thinking. 

We tend to assume that if our partners really loved us they would know what we want and need. This absurd expectation sets us up for relationship disasters, repeatedly, because it’s based on an erroneous assumption. Men cannot read our minds. Nor should they have to.

If something means a lot to you — gifts on Valentine’s Day or your sixth month Anniversary, for example — mention that to your partner months in advance. 

Find out if he has similar feelings. If he cares little about celebrating the date you met, realize you are making an unrealistic request that is not likely to be met, especially as the relationship progresses.

So, find out if he enjoys planning dates or if he is a “bouquet of flowers” and candy kind of guy. Because if you want him to be and he isn’t, you are not communicating on a healthy level. 

Assuming he is going to be just as you want him to be, is unrealistic. 

Assuming he understands your subtle hints and nuances is foolish. You need to express clearly and precisely what you like to happen and then see if he agrees. If he doesn’t, at least you won’t be expecting something that is never going to happen. This saves you a lot of frustration, disappointment and unnecessary arguments – and could save your relationship!

The partnership between you and your boyfriend requires good emotional and intellectual skills and the wherewithal to know that you are both responsible for making or breaking the experience. 

So, if you found a like-minded, eligible individual who meets your standards for getting involved, be sure to discuss your expectations and his expectations, openly and honestly, so that you are both working from a place of strength and not insecurity.

Misunderstandings happen all the time when communication is poor. 

Don’t let that happen, especially when the solution is as easy as saying, “Tell me, what do you think about this…?”

Amy Sherman, M.A., LMHC – www.yourbabyboomersnetwork.com

Amanda Patterson

When you are in a relationship, especially in the beginning, expectations are going to be a part of the process. 

You and that person are in a learning curve, especially related to the other person and their wants and needs. It will take time to get into a groove of being able to express your wants and needs, as well as learning to meet the needs and wants of your partner. 

Having a “talk” about expectations can be heavy. There are ways to set expectations in a relationship without making it a task.

1. Set them subtly

a. When I say subtly, I mean you continuously set your expectations without coming out and saying “here are my expectations”. 

If you are setting a date for Friday night and it is your expectation that your boyfriend is on time, you can say to him when you are setting the date, “Hey I know we have reservations at 7pm and it is important to me that we are on time”. 

You haven’t come out and said it is my expectation that we are on time. You are letting him know what your want is, to be on time.

2. Set them explicitly

If there is something you are solid about and you want to set the expectation, it will be important to let your significant other know that it is an expectation. 

If you expect to hang out 4 days a week, than let him know “My expectation is that we hang out four days a week”. 

This is the opening for a discussion and dialogue about expectations. This is an area where compromise will be important; however coming in with a clear sense of your expectations will allow for greater clarity.

3. Set them together

The two of you can come together to discuss mutually what the other expects. This is crucial related to time spent, levels of communication, response time for communication, time spent apart, activities with and without your partner, etc. Having an open dialogue is going to bring about the greatest understanding and compromise. 

Open communication and compromise are two key ingredients for a healthy relationship and using them when discussing expectations will allow for each party to feel heard and have their wants and needs to be expressed and valued.

  • What expectations do you have in a relationship? 
  • How have you been expressing your expectations? 
  • What expectations can you compromise on? 
  • What is one expectation you want to discuss with your significant other now?

Amanda Patterson, LMHC – www.amandapattersonlmhc.com

Sally LeBoy

There are no rules for having expectations because everybody’s are different. 

Expectations are not right or wrong; they are just ideas we’ve developed over the years about how relationships should work. It’s very important to know what your expectations are so that you’re able to communicate them at the appropriate time.

Often a discussion will occur when an expectation isn’t met. 

This can be a minor event like, “I thought you were making the reservations”, or major like, “I thought our relationship was exclusive”. Miscommunications happen (the reservations), but expectations are more about the actual nature of the relationship (exclusive vs. not).

Communication needs to happen anytime there is a lack of clarity between the partners. 

It’s human nature to assume that we all think alike. This is of course completely false. People’s expectations are often a product of the norms in their families of origin. So unless you date and marry your brother, there are going to be differences. 

If we expect differences, maybe we will be less afraid of them. We might also be less prone to making assumptions and more curious about the unique nature of our partner’s expectations.

A huge pitfall is being afraid to voice your expectations for fear that your partner will object or be put off. 

If you are that different from each other, or he is too controlling to be interested in your expectations, the demise of the relationship is inevitable anyway. By staying silent, you’re just postponing it.

I think the most important thing is to be clear about your expectations but not rigid. 

Nobody has the lock on how to manage a relationship. Knowing your own expectations cuts down on misunderstandings; however being rigid about them excludes the compromises that all relationships need to work.

Sally LeBoy, MFT – www.sallyleboymft.com

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