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How To Deal With Unrealistic Expectations in Relationships

Expectations about how your relationship should run or how your partner should treat you aren’t all bad because it does show that you value yourself and have standards. The issue is that oftentimes, your expectations don’t match up to those of your significant other. These expectations come from our underlying beliefs that are shaped or formed by early life experiences or from our family of origin. These are usually ingrained messages that can also come from friends and communities. When we operate from this place we put negative meaning to the behaviors of our SO when they fail to meet our expectations.

Here are  4 unrealistic expectations that can ruin relationships:

1. I can make them respond the way I want them to
There’s only one person in this world you can truly change—yourself—and even that takes great effort. The only way that people change is if they choose to do so.  I know, I know, it is tempting to try to change someone so that they can respond the way you want. You hope that your sheer will and desire for them to be better, have better and do better, will change them. You might even actively choose people with problems, thinking that you can “fix” them. You cannot force someone into changing. It is therefore unrealistic to think you can ‘fix’ someone else.

2. They know what I need
Life, unlike the movies and TV dramas, is not scripted. Your thoughts and emotions are yours and are in your head, unless you say them out loud, only you know what they are. The same goes for your needs. Your significant other can’t know that you had a rough day and just need a few minutes to decompress, unless you tell them. Your partner won’t know that they upset you, or that you need them to do something, unless you tell them. So often, especially when we have been with our partner for a long time, we feel they should “just know”. This is unrealistic. You don’t know what they are thinking, feeling or needing all the time either. Communicating to your significant other what you are thinking, feeling and needing will take the  guesswork; saving you so much heartache in the long run.

3. They will always agree with your point of view
Something that’s obvious to you might not be so obvious to your significant other. Like you, your partner’s perceptions, upbringing, experiences, biases and prejudices determine their outlook and their reality. Remember that your expectations are based on your own life experiences, it may not be so obvious to them based on their own life story. Don’t take offense if your partner disagrees with you.  Also, don’t assume that there is only one way to look at things (yours). Instead, focus on how you can find solutions that give everyone what they need. Learn the art of compromise. Coming to a solution that works for both parties involved. Ask questions. Find out what the other person is thinking, feeling and need. Leave room for open dialogue that allows you to meet in the middle so  you progress together as a couple.

4. They should know what I mean
Unfortunately, your spouse cannot read your mind. and what you’re trying to say or the intention behind what you are saying is rarely what other people hear. Just because you told your partner something, doesn’t mean that they understood what you expected of them—you have to be clear. When you assume that they should just know what you are trying to say, or what you meant by what you said; it is easy to leave out relevant information because you don’t think it’s necessary. You think they should “just know”. Especially if your request seems so obvious from your point of view.

So what can you do?

Ask questions and when you communicate, don’t assume. If your spouse says she is “fine” don’t just assume you know what “fine” means, find out what it means to her. Seek to understand, from her perspective, what “fine” means.

If your husband says he will take care of the leaky faucet soon, ask questions to understand what time frame “soon” represents to him.

So now that we have briefly looked at 4 unrealistic expectations, I will give you 4 strategies to let go of unrealistic expectations that can chip away at your relationship.

Strategy One: Use the double-standard technique

Imagine what you would say to a friend or family member who holds the same expectation or beliefs as you do. Often, when you are removed from the situation and on the outside looking in per se, you will say something far more reasonable and realistic.  You will think more objectively about your expectation versus reality. By shifting your perspective you can change your unrealistic expectations. Here are 4 thought-provoking questions you can ask yourself to determine if perhaps you are judging your spouse according to a double standard.

  1. Is this a realistic thing to expect from my partner given their ability, current circumstances, and life story?
  2. If I was in their shoes, would this expectation be something I could meet?
  3. If I was in their shoes, how would I perceive this situation?
  4. Have I personally lived up to these expectations consistently?

Asking these questions allows you the space to rethink the situation from a new perspective. Once you do this, you have the freedom to adjust or create a new set of expectations that can help you empower your partner to meet those expectations.

Strategy Two: Reflect on the effects of your expectations

Some powerful questions you can ask yourself are:

Does [the expectation] help or hurt my relationship?

Does [the expectation] move my relationship forward?

Does [the expectation] strengthen or weaken my relationship?

If the expectation negatively impacts your relationship, gently acknowledge it. Recognize that you have an unrealistic expectation in the situation and if it helps, you can even say aloud “This expectation does not help me now.” Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that your expectations are not norms or rules that other people should be governed by. Taking the time to examine and question your expectations will help you to stop judging your partner for being “wrong” about having a different way of doing things. It opens up the door for a conversation between you and your partner to understand each other’s point of view and reach a compromise that works for both of you and makes your union stronger.

Strategy Three: Allow for Flexibility

By this I mean, you should start by being sensitive to changing circumstances. I’ll use an example that may be familiar to you. Perhaps instead of telling your husband, “Babe, you said you would do the dishes if I cooked. We had a deal!” you could perhaps say something like, “It looks like you haven’t had a chance to clean the kitchen. Could we work on it? I can help.”

So why is this strategy more effective? Because you are stating what you need clearly and in a way that gives your husband the opportunity to listen and make a choice. When cleaning the kitchen becomes his choice, he is far more likely to follow through.

In addition, the strategy of being flexible allows room to learn and grow. You learn better/new ways to communicate with your partner. As you listen to their side of things and seek to understand their perspective, you learn more about the one you are with. Better understand how they think, feel, react, and what their expectations are leads to growth for both of you as individuals, but also as a couple growing together.

Strategy Four: Challenge Your Limiting Beliefs

The majority of our unrealistic expectations come from a place of pessimism and doubt which lead us to create “failure scenarios” in our minds. On a subconscious level, we fear we will fail at this relationship. We fear losing our partner for one reason or the other, and that fear can manifest as these unrealistic expectations that chip away at our relationships. To successfully handle these doubts, challenge the underlying limiting beliefs. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What do I expect will happen?
  • How do I know for sure that things won’t work out?
  • What if the way I am thinking is completely flawed?
  • What’s another, more empowering way to think about this relationship?
  • What’s a new set of expectations that would be more helpful to keep the relationship moving forward?

The more you challenge your negative thoughts and limiting beliefs the more confidence you gain to keep moving forward.

Carmen Riley is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Virginia and the District of Columbia. She is the owner of  Zion Restoration Counseling Services, a group practice in Fairfax Virginia that specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, relationship issues and trauma.  To learn more or if you would like to make an appointment check her group website at to schedule an appointment.

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