If you look back on your previous relationships that didn’t work out, what prevented them from going forward? You may think “incompatibility” or “dishonesty.” And while there are incompatibilities and dishonesties and many other legitimate deal breakers, the preventable thing that thwarts so many relationships is our expectations.
Expectation’s definition is “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case.” Or “a belief that someone will or should achieve/do something.” With the synonyms assumption, belief, projection, prediction.
Expectations are all about what we believe should or shouldn’t happen, and have very little to do with the reality of interacting with another human being. Most of our expectation come from ideals, images, and desires we have about how things should be, how people should communicate, how we should be treated, etc. They are essentially hypothetical, based on our belief systems.
Working with people around the topic of relationship, I have come up against so many of these ideals. From thinking a man should pay for everything to prove his love and loyalty, to being angry at a partner for not doing something you thought they should do…but didn’t actually ask them to do….it’s pretty wild to see some of these shoulds and projections play out. Yet, ultimately we all have these tendencies at times to project onto our partners (and friends, coworkers, and families too) what we would idealize them to do/be.
Living in expectation is a surefire path to disappointment. Each person in our lives is uniquely wired by their life experience, their culture, their wounds. Rarely do we get the exact response out of them that we – through the lens of our life experience, our culture, and our wounds – would like. It’s easy to go into blame, anger, or feeling victimized when people don’t live up to our expectations. Very easy. It’s also easy to get into our heads about an interaction and work ourselves into a funk about it, rather than just taking it at face value and being with the other person, without judging or condemning their actions.
In this moment is the only space for intimacy. Intimacy is a living experience, not an ideal. If we are caught in expectations, we are merely comparing our loved one to an ideal, and we are not really present with them, or ourselves really. We are stepping outside of the living moment into the realm of fantasy. Perhaps it sometimes feels safer there, away from the moment. We feel protected or insulated from being hurt, or being challenged in our perspective.
Yet if you hold a deeper intention for yourself in relationship, if you want to create something that is real, alive, and honest with a partner, looking at your expectations and how you use them to hold yourself apart is so important. For me, the first couple of years with John I was pretty pushy with him, wanting him to make decisions more quickly, wanting him essentially to be more like me! I couldn’t see it then, but looking back I do. I was projecting an ideal onto him and upset when he didn’t live up to it. Luckily for me he was forgiving enough and self-aware enough to see that this was my issue. When I finally figured it out, it was a wakeup call for me, and now I honor his pace, his knowing and timing, recognizing that his process of decision making is different than mine, and in some ways smarter than mine!
How do you recognize if you are projecting, or pushing an expectation onto a person in relationship? The main thing you might notice is that you’re frustrated that they are not doing something that you wish they were doing. This may be that they are not waking up early to go for hikes with you, they are not texting you back when you wish they would, they are not paying for dinner when you wish they would, etc. Perhaps your idea is that relationships should feel close and connected all of the time, yet your new partner seems to come and go and that frustrates you.
The knee-jerk tendency is to attempt to impose your view of how things should be onto the person. You might subtly hint things at them….”you know, I bet you’d feel really good if you got up and hiked before work with me…” or you might be less subtle…. “why aren’t you connecting with me?! Why didn’t you text me back!? What is going on with you?? This is not OK behaviour!” Or you might just swallow your feelings and become resentful each time your new love interest doesn’t come forward and share about their feelings. Perhaps you mentally make a tick mark in the “this is not going to work” side of the pro-con list each time. And the slow death of the relationship begins…
You can feel probably in my examples here that in each reaction, there is no connection with the other person, really no relationship at all. It is all happening in your head, an inner conversation you’re having between your ego and your mind, both of which are limited resources in my opinion.
What is a better way? How can you access a better resource, one that might actually help you get what you want in relationship? What are the resources that will deliver intimacy, true relating, connection, and movement past petty cycles of mistrust and criticism?
Some of the resources that can shift this looping of expectation/demand/disappointment are:
1. Witnessing – without imposing your world view, can you simply witness the person’s behavior and start to get curious about it? Give them some space. Witness the way they handle things, what seems normal to them, how they operate. You may learn some valuable information either about them, or gain a new perspective on a different way to operate in the world. Perhaps you’ll find their way is not compatible with yours. Or, you might be surprised and learn that even though you would have wanted more closeness, for example, it’s actually helpful to you to have some days with no relating where you can just focus on yourself. You may learn that your relationship boundaries actually needed some adjusting. Or you may see that their behavior is coming from pain, or fear, and that just being nonjudgmental is the best thing you can do to help them with it, rather than pushing or pulling on them to change.
2. Give what you need to yourself – if there’s something you’re not receiving from a partner, can you take it as a sign that you could generate something for yourself in that area? If you don’t feel paid attention to, for example, can you do some self-pampering and attuning to yourself on a deeper level so that you feel your nervous system relax fully? If they are being indecisive, can you feel what your own choices are and get really clear internally? This will lessen the demand that others do it first, and perhaps clue you in to one of your blind spots.
3. Don’t jump to conclusions – if you find yourself evaluating the other’s behavior and deciding quickly what it must mean about them…”they obviously don’t really like me,” “they are so self centered,” “they are so emotionally wounded,” etc….just pause. Usually our quick judgments are a little bit premature and a little bit oversimplified. If you can use some patience, step back, breathe…you will be able to see much more of the reality of the situation than if you don’t take the time to pause before you react.
In the example that I gave about myself and John, once I got off my high horse, I learned a lot by watching how he makes decisions. I realized that I can tend to push past my own guidance and get a little impulsive, rather than really taking the time to feel things out. I actually realized there was a lot of intelligence to his way and that I needed to emulate some aspects of it to get into better balance myself.
Relationship is a huge test of our capacity to get out of ideals, expectations, fears, criticism, and into connection. Into the moment. Into willingness to let our biases go and open/listen to what is there in the living energy between us. Relationship takes so much humility and willingness to see our side in creating things, good and bad. It can be hard work in moments but the payoff is huge. If you do the work, you can have a wonderful relationship where both you and your partner feel seen and supported. Where expectations and the pressure that comes with them are no longer running the show. I wish this for you!