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Relationship Expectations – 6 Relationship Experts Reveal Exactly How To Set and Discuss Expectations in Your Relationship

by Erin Leonard – PhD, LCSW, LLC, Kendra O’Hora – Ph.D., LCMFT, Michelle Henderson – MA, LMHC, Jennifer Meyer – M.A., LPC, NCC, Dana Hall, – LCPC, MA, TF-CBT, Sally LeBoy – MS, MFT

Relationship Expectations

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

~ Brené Brown

Brené Brown Daring To Set Boundaries Quote
Dana Hall

Expectation is the brush that paints the picture of how a relationship will look. 

However, expectations, like fine art, are both subjective. That is why it is imperative we come into conversations regarding expectations from a place of compassion, openness, and mutual respect. 

Following this plan will help you to set proper relationship expectations with your partner.

First, in order to know where we stand, we must consider the foundation of our needs and wants. 

To do this begin by asking yourself, “How would I like to feel in relation to my partner?” 

Try to come up with 3-5 words that describe the feelings you would like to embrace in your relationship. 

It is a great exercise to have your partner do separately; as you compare responses let it lend to the deeper conversation about how those needs can be met.

Second, consider what you are not willing to tolerate in a relationship. 

This includes items like abuse, neglect, and may include more specific ways of being treated poorly or not valued. Consider writing out a list of items you will not allow into your relationship. This is a powerful exercise that may bring up some past dynamics; it is important to carve out your boundaries and expect them to be respected.

No matter what movies have told us – Other’s do not complete us. 

I am sorry but those words sound romantic but are toxic AF! We are looking for partners that enhance our life not people that fix or mend the places of hurt within us. 

Be careful labelling something as an expectation that is really our own baggage. 

This may be reflected in an expectation such as, “My partner should know what I want and need.” Instead consider, “My partner encourages my growth and is open to hearing and responding to my wants and needs.”

The final exercise is understanding, you have the right to ask for what you need…and so do they. 

Some mutual healthy categories of expectations are listed below. 

Rank them in level of importance and make sure to discuss what they look like in your current relationship and what you would like to see moving forward.

Intimacy: Emotional and physical connections
Financial: The value of money and its role
Experience: The people, places, and things that enrich life
Communication: Connection through words and actions
Family: Loved ones in our life, creating family unit
Respect: How we interact in honor of someone’s personhood, time, feelings and contributions

As you communicate your expectations keep in mind that healthy couples honor one another’s dreams, even if they’re different. 

They create a shared meaning system with shared values and ethics, beliefs, rituals, and goals. They agree about fundamental symbols like what a home is, what love is, and they want to build a life together that creates deeper meaning. Expect nothing less than that, you both deserve it.

Dana Hall, LCPC, MA, TF-CBT – www.danahalltherapy.com

Kendra O Hora

Locking in Your Relationship Expectations

If you want your partnership to thrive on healthy expectations ya gotta communicate! But communicating your expectations is a bit of a cart-before-the-horse scenario.

You can’t communicate what you don’t know. So, let’s take a step back and dive into your relationship bullseye.

Creating a Relationship Bullseye to Manage Expectations

What’s a bullseye? It’s your road map to knowing what you need out of your bond.

Here’s what I want you to do: grab a piece of computer paper and draw a bullseye with three rings.

You’ll be filling in this diagram with your wants, needs, and expectations. What’s really key in this practice is that you do not have judgment for what comes up. 

First, your bullseye can evolve as you evolve. 

Second, your bullseye does not need to look similar to anyone else. 

You are a unique person and deserve to have expectations in a relationship that align with YOU.

Let’s start with the inner ring. 

The innermost ring (the bullseye) is going to consist of things that are non-negotiable expectations in your partnership. This inner ring needs to represent things that are 100% required in your bond.

When I work through this exercise with clients I have them start with that inner circle. 

I often hear things like: 

I want a partner that works full time, I want someone who has a college degree, I want someone that is pro choice, I want someone who believes in God, I want someone who fights against inequality.

As you can see, these inner expectations are intimately tied to one’s belief system and as a reminder, they are non-negotiable.

That next circle are going to be things that you really, really want in your partnership but that are not required. For this circle, we’re looking for about 80% alignment.

These might be things like: 

I want someone who takes care of their physical health, I want someone who does not interrupt me when I speak, I want someone who is family oriented, I want someone who can laugh at anything, I want someone who is pro mental health.

Sometimes what’s in the second circle for someone else may be in your inner circle or vice versa, that’s OK!

Finally, that outer ring. 

This is the cherry on top! For this circle we’re looking for about 20% alignment: he’s gotta play an instrument, drive a nice car, or have a nice smile. I want him to love cats, board games, and Taylor Swift (maybe those are in my inner circle, ha!)

Now Get Communicating

You’ve mapped out your circle, you know what is most important to you. You know that these things are foundational expectations you have in partnership. Now’s the time to share.

Carve out an hour to review your circle with your partner. Share what’s most important to you and why. Perhaps you ask your partner to create his version, too.

One Last Thought

If you’re stuck on what expectations to include in your bullseye, here are some thoughts:

  • Cover communication and conflict resolution desires. For example: I want him to be willing to pause and not react when I’m sharing.
  • Cover sex/intimacy expectations, such as: I want him to initiate sex, often.
  • Cover hobbies/activities; I want him to enjoy hiking and riding dirt bikes.
  • Cover families/friends: I want my partner to be open to have children. I want my partner to be friends with my brother.
  • Cover spirituality and/or religion: I want my partner to care about the world and his impact on it.
  • Cover roles and responsibilities: I want my partner to share in completing household tasks such as laundry and dishes.
  • Cover Finances: I want my partner to make six figures. Or, I want my partner to enjoy spending on vacations and fun activities and not be scared about savings.

 Now you know what to cover and how to communicate it – now it’s time to create that bullseye!

Kendra O’Hora, Ph.D., LCMFT – www.wellnessandco.org

Michelle Henderson

When it comes to having expectations in a relationship, people tend to worry about if they’re not setting enough expectations for their partner or if they’re setting too many. 

Veering too far in either direction can lead to a relationship crumbling over time. Furthermore, there’s no “right” amount per se, making this topic all the more challenging. In my opinion, it’s important that you set expectations for your partner in three core areas:

Time Together 

While it would be unrealistic to expect your partner to spend all their time with you, if you have a partner who doesn’t seem interested in spending time with you, this is a concern. You want to find a partner who will spend quality time with you more often than not (that means paying more attention to you than a screen). 

There is no set amount of “hours” or “times per week” that’s correct because this is going to vary depending on each partner’s work schedule and other commitments. 

However, if you find yourself going long stretches of time without seeing your partner or feeling like they’re paying attention to you when you are together, it may be time to ask for more from them.

Interest 

You and your partner are unique individuals with different families, friends, and hobbies. It is fair to expect your partner to show some interest in your life and the people in it by spending time with them as opportunities arise and to learn some about your interests. 

This doesn’t mean that either of you have to love the other’s activities, but it is not expecting too much to ask them to try something out with you once as a joint activity and for you to do the same for them with their interests (and if either of you decide you never want to do that activity again, that’s okay). It’s also a fair expectation to negotiate spending holidays together and other important dates (like birthdays).

Respect

Respect encompasses listening and understanding the other person’s point of view. If you are having a disagreement, it is healthy to expect that your partner will listen to your point of view and that they will not become verbally abusive towards you. 

We all can get heated from time to time when we’re overwhelmed or angry, but the expectation should be that you each take some time to cool off if that happens instead of taking it out on each other. You have every right to ask for this from them.

Michelle Henderson, MA, LMHC – www.nextchapter-counseling.com

Erin Leonard

Love is defined differently by everyone. 

For many, love is a feeling of deep connectedness. For others, love is an elusive prize which needs to be contained and controlled. 

One version may elicit joy and comfort while the other frequently causes anxiety and discomfort. Either way, figuring it out may save a person a great deal of heartache in the long run. 

Closeness is the feeling a person gets when he or she falls in love. 

Talking for hours and getting to know a new love allows a person to learn about a partner’s feelings, thoughts, dreams, hopes, hurts and struggles; everything that comprises his or her internal world. 

When reciprocated, the experience of feeling understood, known, and supported allows a person to also feel loved.

The exercise of getting to know someone when falling in love should not end after courtship. 

Continuing to talk and understand a loved one’s experiences as he or she walks through life allows a person to possess empathy for a partner. Many believe empathy is the cornerstone of a close and healthy relationship. 

Empathy is the opposite of feeling sorry for a partner, fixing his or her problems, or surrendering a personal perspective. 

It is simply a sincere attempt to understand how a person feels, while communicating this understanding to him or her. Essentially, it is listening and being attuned to a feeling state, and then honoring the feeling. 

Examples of empathic statements include:

  • “You are mad. I get it. You have every right to be.” 
  • “You are hurt. I would be too. I understand.” 
  • “You are upset. I don’t know why, but I want to understand. Tell me.”
  • “You are overwhelmed. It is frustrating. How can I help?”
  • “You are disappointed. I would be too. What can I do?” 

Understanding how a partner feels does not mean a person relinquishes his or her own viewpoint. 

It simply means a person is willing to try and understand. This, alone, conveys respect and love. 

Often when a person has empathy, he or she feels more connected to the person who “gets it” and less alone in his or her predicament. This is often comforting and sustains the closeness in the relationship.  

Perhaps, the most difficult time to have empathy for a partner is when a person is the one that hurt the partner. 

Yet, stay the course. Empathize with the partner’s feelings; “I disappointed you. I am sorry. I had a selfish moment. I won’t do that again.” 

This type of apology is free from excuses, rationalizations, and minimizations which add to its authenticity and power. Frequently, heartfelt accountability repairs ruptures in the relationship and preserves the trust. 

It is important to note that if a partner’s insincere apology or lack of an apology is packed with justifications and deflections, he or she may be “playing the victim.” 

This occurs when a partner uses past hardships to excuse wrongdoing in the present. It is manipulative because a partner is attempting to take advantage of a person’s empathy. Exploiting empathy may erode the trust and squelch a person’s ability to continue being empathic in the relationship. 

The importance of discussing feelings in terms of resolving conflict and preserving the closeness in the union is critical. 

Yet, feigning hardship to excuse a hurtful act, may be an attempt to manipulate and gain emotional control of a person.

A sign that a partner may lack empathy occurs when he or she is unable to consider a person’s feelings when they differ from how he or she feels. When a partner dismisses, shames, and punishes a person for a feeling, he or she may struggle with empathy. 

Examples of statements that invalidate feelings include:  

  • “Don’t be like that.”
  • “Don’t be mad.”
  • “You are too sensitive.”
  • “Don’t start.”
  • “Don’t be disappointed.”
  • “You are too emotional.”
  • “You are crazy.” 
  • “You overthink.” 
  • “You are insecure.” 

When a partner consistently refuses to honor how a person feels, and shames him or her, it takes a toll on the person’s sense-of-self. 

Feeling ashamed may compel a person to second guess feelings and opinions. Convinced he or she is wrong for feeling a certain way, a person may surrender to a partner’s demands. After a few months, a partner’s lack of empathy may impact a person’s mental health.

This type of emotional manipulation is often due to a partner’s unconscious desire for control. 

Unaware of his or her controlling tendencies because they stem from deep-rooted insecurities, the partner may lack insight. Resolving these tendencies is difficult if the partner is unable to recognize the dysfunction. 

A lack of empathy and a propensity to “play the victim” in order to escape accountability, are intangible dynamics easily swept under the rug when isolated. 

Yet, if these habits continue over time, the theme of a partner vying for control of a loved one’s self-esteem may become evident. If a person becomes enlightened and challenges the partner, the partner may inflict guilt in order to exonerate himself or herself. 

For example, “How can you accuse me of being selfish when I helped you with your car? You are impossible to please.” 

Inflicting guilt is yet another attempt to maintain emotional control of a partner. 

If a partner empathizes, is vulnerable instead of a victim, and is sincerely accountable for mistakes in the relationship, trust is easier to sustain. 

The love in the relationship is a product of closeness. 

Alternatively, if a partner emotionally manipulates, shames, routinely plays the victim, and continually inflicts guilt, the need for control may be his or her dysfunctional version of love, and is often destructive. A healthy love is one in which both people feel heard, understood and respected. It may be worth the wait.

Erin Leonard, PhD, LCSW, LLC – www.drerinleonard.com

Jennifer Meyer

If you’ve arrived at that stage in dating where you feel like you and your partner are on different pages, it may mean it’s time to set some clearer expectations for your relationship.  

Sound overwhelming?  

If you’re unsure of where to start, consider what you would request from your partner in some key categories: communication and conflict, commitment level, and desired amount of time to spend as a couple.  

Setting expectations will help prevent misunderstandings and allow you to approach meeting your needs as a team.

Keep in mind that for this conversation (as well as other, more serious discussions), being respectful will help your partner feel more open, less defensive.  

Shoot for a warm, but assertive tone; avoid blame and criticism; and try to have an open, mutual conversation where you and your partner agree on expectations that meet needs for both of you.

Communication is an important foundation in any relationship, so if you and your partner communicate poorly, everything else will likely suffer as a result, and conflicts will be more challenging.  

Consider asking your partner to agree to some of the following communication basics: 

  • setting aside uninterrupted time to discuss difficult issues; 
  • making it a point to listen to each other out without interrupting; 
  • taking timeouts if things get heated (and ensuring you circle back when you’re both calm); and 
  • trying to find a frequency of regular communication that meets both of your needs. 

Additionally, it’s important to discuss your expectations for the relationship in terms of commitment level.  

For example, if it is important to you to be in an exclusive relationship, but you haven’t yet had that conversation, now is the time.  A lack of mutually agreed-upon expectations can lead to assumptions and misunderstandings, and ultimately, a lot of hurt.

Another issue that can crop up in couples is differences in the amount of time partners want to spend with each other versus being solo or with friends.  

Again, try to find a compromise that works for both of you, but keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be a rigid agreement.  If one partner is feeling disconnected, expressing it is key, and the other partner making it a point to show up will mean a lot. 

If your partner can’t identify his expectations when you talk, ask him to think about it for a couple of days, and set a time to revisit the discussion.  Hopefully this conversation is effective and sets the stage for continued success!

Jennifer Meyer, M.A., LPC, NCC – www.jenmeyercounseling.com

Sally LeBoy

I think women get in trouble because they are afraid that their expectations will scare off the partner.  Of course, that can happen but if your expectations for the relationship are different, isn’t it better to know sooner rather than later?

Expectations change over the course of a relationship.  

In the beginning, expectations are often based on physical attraction and some common interests.  But there are some expectations that should be there from the get-go.  

Respect and honesty are expectations that every woman should have as these are the foundations for any kind of relationship no matter the duration.  

Communicating that you don’t feel respected might help if he’s just a bad communicator.  Issues with honesty will not be helped by communication as this is a deeper-seated issue for him and possibly characterological.  In short, if he’s disrespectful or dishonest you should probably just get out.

Anything else can be talked about, including  expectations about the timing of the relationship.   

People move at different paces; as long as you are on the same page in terms of where you would like the relationship to eventually go, compromises can be reached.  The honest airing of thoughts and feelings often bring couples closer.

You will not know if you are with someone who is able to and open to talking things out unless you try.  

You need to know if he gets defensive, or aggressive when you need to talk about something.  Knowing about his ability to tolerate and process anger gives you insight into what you can expect as the relationship gets more serious.

There is really no substitute for good communication.  

Good communication is not the same as agreement.  Couples disagree; it’s how they handle those disagreements that is critical to a healthy, satisfying relationship.  Many of us didn’t grow up in families where good communication was the norm.  

Happily, good communication isn’t complicated and can be learned.  

All it takes is a willingness to be open to learning new skills.  Communicating will tell you if you are with that open person.  Pay attention to the response you get and act accordingly.

Sally LeBoy, MS, MFT – www.sallyleboymft.com

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