T.L. Holt, MA
Many of our expectations are shaped by the environment in which we are raised. At an
early age, we can learn to expect certain things from certain people simply because of our
experience. For example, one child could learn to expect that all fathers come home from
work, turn on the TV, and disengage from the family. Another child, could learn to expect
that all fathers come home from work, kiss their mother, talk about their day, and
individually engage their children in either conversation or play. As a person learns to
expect these behaviors within their own family, these expectations can be carried out of the
home and into many relational interactions.
When that transition occurs, we are faced with a dilemma when our expectations do not
align with reality. We have a choice when this happens and our reactions will usually play
a powerful role in the way we experienced by others. Our choice could be to assert our
expectations in order to change others or we could consider adjusting our expectations in
order to accommodate to the other person. Either choice could be healthy or possibly
unhealthy depending on our motives and the circumstances.
There are positive and negative reasons to assert expectations in relationships. A positive
reason is to promote the overall health of the relationship. For instance, a person might
try to help another understand boundary issues that were present in their parents'
relationship in order to establish healthy boundaries in their own lives. For example, if a
person has learned to expect that viewing “R” rated movies was not acceptable, this could
create division if the other person learned to expect the opposite. By asserting the
expectation that “R” rated movies would not be part of their relationship, the person is not
only caring about themselves, but also about the long-term health of the relationship
because they want to be united in the way they do life. Asserting expectations works best
when a person wants the best for the relationship rather than being “right” or pressuring
the other person into conformity.
Asserting your own expectations can result in many struggles. New marriages often
experience conflict because each individual brings their own unique experiences and
expectations into the union and the tug-of-war can begin. This can come across as
controlling behavior; not because the person is actually controlling, but because their
expectations are being challenged. Couples often resolve their differing expectations by
accommodations or compromises, but resentments can grow as well. Couples who work at
communication and keep their desire for the good of the other and the relationship at the
fore usually work through their conflicts effectively. Couples who sweep these conflicts
under the rug or who emphasize their need to be right often find themselves becoming
increasingly distant, resentful, and bitter.
The alternative to asserting one's expectations is to adjust one's expectations. Expectation
adjustment can sound like a dirty word to many people. For a man/woman who has spent
many years trying to have their spouse fit with their expectations and has developed
resentment grown out of a lack of change, adjusting their personal expectations would feel
like waving the white flag in defeat. Though adjustment can feel like defeat; in many
situations, it is actually the opposite. Healthy adjustment of expectations allows a person to
exercise humility and to walk in freedom where control is no longer the goal. Sometimes a
person simply needs to accept their partner as they are and to give up their expectation for
the partner to change in a certain way. An example might be accepting your partner's
extroverted need to spend time greeting people in public or at church when you would
rather avoid the contact and move on. On the other hand, there are some issues worth
fighting over and not accepting the other person's position such as the issue of
pornography use or alcohol abuse. Expectation adjustment on this type of issue would
compromise one's integrity and possibly one's safety.
If a person is simply trying to appease another in order to avoid conflict, they are adjusting
their expectation in an unhealthy fashion. In a relationship, people do not need to lose
their voice simply to fit another person's expectations. Adjusting expectations out of fear is
not a healthy way to cultivate freedom and unity in a relationship. If a person goes along
with everything another says in order to “keep the peace,” the peacemaker may find
themselves growing bitter because they are never heard nor appreciated for their possible
contributions. In relationships, silence out of fear or avoidance is not the answer to
building a healthy foundation.
In a tug-of-war, people face each other and pull towards their respective sides. The result
will be one side defeated, in the pit and the other victorious, on dry ground. In our
relationships, if we stand side-by-side, humble ourselves, assert our expectations in a
positive manner and adjust our expectations in a healthy way, the journey through life with
its highs and lows will be smoother and healthier. We can walk together, knowing each
other deeply, and living in the context of real love. I encourage you to consider your
expectations. Do you have some that need asserting? Or do you have some that it is time
to adjust? I wish you the best as you reflect.