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Expectations in a Relationship: Reasonable vs Unrealistic

How do we know if we’re asking too much from our partners? What if we’re asking too little? Expectations can shape the dynamics, set the tone for the relationship, and cultivate an atmosphere of support and safety. However, it is important to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable expectations to avoid emotional distress from unmet needs or impossible standards.

What are expectations in a relationship?

Some may believe it's best to not expect anything from your partner to avoid being let down. However, expectations may support you in cultivating healthy relationships. You may want to shoot for a “good enough” relationship that balances high expectations and recognizes unreasonable expectations to form a well-rounded partnership. Expectations may look like rules or guidelines to make sure all partners are contributing to and receiving the benefits of the relationship.

It’s normal for your expectations to be different from your partner’s

In a relationship, each partner brings a bounty of experiences, new perspectives, and values. You may prioritize some expectations more than your partner or the expectations may differ based on your individual experiences before entering the relationship. Consider what informs your expectations. Could your expectations be based on your prior relationships, your relationships with friends and family, or the relationship you have with yourself and your ability to meet your needs? Some expectations may be harder to meet or understand than others. Communicating about these differences and being realistic about expectations that may be more difficult to meet can foster a healthy relationship.

Communicating your expectations is critical to a healthy relationship

Even for couples that have been together for years, it is unrealistic to assume that our partner knows all our needs and wants and, therefore, our expectations. Reflect on how you have changed over time as an individual and how your needs and values may change in the future as well. Consider how expectations may also change based on the history of the relationship and how they may continue to change with transitions and milestones. Communication around expectations can be critical during transition periods such as becoming engaged, married, having children, and even during large moves and career changes. Clear expectations can help preserve a sense of stability and reliability as you navigate stressful situations together.

Moreover, lack of communication about expectations may lead to disconnection in which one partner may feel too much is being demanded of them or they may feel resentment that their partner is not present and supportive of them. This may contribute to emotional distance and if enough negative sentiment is present in the relationship, it may drive a partner to seek other options for intimacy or connection outside of the relationship.

10 reasonable expectations

The 10 reasonable relationship expectations listed below can help you evaluate and guide a discussion with your partner if you find that some of these are missing from your current relationship.

  1. Mutual trust in each other.

  2. Equal commitment to the relationship.

  3. Shared affection and appreciation.

  4. Empathy towards experiences and emotions.

  5. Friendship and admiration in the relationship.

  6. A satisfying sexual connection.

  7. Mutual understanding and compromise.

  8. Respect for differences.

  9. Quality time.

  10. Shared kindness and generosity.

1) Trust

Be curious about each other’s inner world and practice empathy towards their experiences, feelings, and needs to build trust over time. Trust promotes a secure attachment in which partners can feel safe to engage in their interests and activities knowing their partner will be there to support them and provide reassurance upon their return.

2) Commitment

Understand each other’s commitment to the relationship and discuss the behaviours that demonstrate the level of commitment to preventing burnout or feelings of resentment when one partner perceives that they are giving more than they get in return. Equal commitment is also essential to building a relationship where both partners feel validated and part of a team.

3) Affection & appreciation

Discuss expressions of love and affection especially when you and your partner prefer different love languages. For example, one may prefer words of affirmation while the other may prefer acts of service. Practice communicating affection towards your partner in their love language rather than your own to validate as this may be more impactful when appreciating your partner for who they are and how they contribute to the relationship.

4) Empathy

Express empathy by building curiosity towards each other’s experiences and validating the accompanying emotions. This can be done by asking open-ended questions about your partner’s experience and setting logic aside to consider why the emotions make sense for your partner given their background. The goal is to understand their perspective rather than needing to agree with their response or provide a solution.

5) Friendship

Cultivate friendship in the relationship through demonstrating interest in each other, which may include active listening throughout the day and making time to engage in the activities each person enjoys to combat feelings of loneliness or insignificance. Friendship builds safety and connection which may allow you to confide in and increase the amount of enjoyment shared between each other.

6) Satisfying sexual connection

Maintain a satisfying sexual relationship through open discussion about sexual needs and preferences including what to do when one partner is in the mood and the other is not. Conversations around the meaning of sex and where this was learned can also increase understanding and connection. For those that have experienced sexual trauma, individual therapy may help combat barriers and improve improvingimproving your sexual connection.

7) Understanding and compromise

Navigate unsolvable or recurring issues by understanding how each person experiences the situation to identify parts of the issue one can be flexible and inflexible about when seeking compromise. When compromising, prioritize the love in your relationship as each partner may need to yield to move past gridlock and potential stonewalling.

8) Respect

Respect for each other’s differences looks like withholding criticism and using curiosity to listen to and validate differing values, customs, or beliefs. Sharing compassion for each other’s differences can remind each you are part of a team and make it easier to view their differences as a strength and hold space for the expression of these differences in the relationship.

9) Quality Time

Quality time can look like going on a date together, doing housework together, or doing other enjoyable activities. The main goal is to be present with each other during these experiences to promote connection and shared meaning. Being present may look like making eye contact, engaging in physical touch, and actively listening and responding to each other’s bids.

10) Kindness and generosity

Increase love in your relationship through demonstrating kindness and generosity when you each need support or after completing an action you appreciate such as communicating effectively or making dinner. It may be especially helpful to incorporate one action of kindness each day to promote a culture of friendship and appreciation within the relationship.

10 unrealistic expectations

Unrealistic expectations may contain absolutes or limitations on each other’s freedom. These may arise from relationships in which the attachment style is anxious-avoidant or insecure rather than secure. If you experience some of these expectations, read on to learn how to shift your focus to develop a more secure relationship with more realistic expectations.

  1. No arguing is a sign of a good relationship.

  2. Always know why and what you are feeling (mind reading).

  3. Always be available when you are in distress.

  4. No friends of the sex they are attracted to.

  5. Always spend all your free time together.

  6. Always in agreement with you.

  7. Always needing to provide solutions.

  8. Always forcing partner to change to avoid distress.

  9. Always having sex regularly.

  10. Never changing appearance.

1) No arguments

While it’s not healthy to fight all the time, engaging in productive arguments or discussions promotes growth by sharing different perspectives and voicing concerns to make a positive change. Couples that avoid conflict may feel that they are “walking on eggshells” and may have a higher likelihood of building negative emotions towards their loved one that can threaten the fondness and admiration in the relationship in the future.

2) Mind reading

Expecting your partner to always know what you are thinking and feeling is usually impossible. Instead, provide context by sharing your emotions and your perception of the event to guide more productive conversations. When this expectation arises, consider whether there is an underlying need for connection and support that can be addressed through a discussion regarding greater consideration for each other.

3) Always available when in distress

Similar to mind reading, expecting your partner to provide comfort on every occasion may set them up for failure. Self-soothe to avoid stonewalling and emotionally draining your partner which can lead to resentment or withdrawal from interactions. Consider using coping strategies and other supports when your significant other is temporarily unavailable and process the experience with them later.

4) No friends of the sex they are attracted to

If you expect your partner to end friendships with people of the sex they are attracted to without clear suspicion of infidelity, this may create a hostile environment that can be conducive to negative sentiments including resentment. Consider exploring your fears and identifying if these can be resolved by building trust, commitment, attunement, or respect and admiration in the relationship.

5) Always spending free time together

It may be detrimental to the relationship to expect your partner to spend all their free time with you. Balancing spending time with each other with engaging in personal interests and friendships may increase relationship satisfaction and opportunities for quality time. Consider your values and the levels of trust and commitment in the relationship to identify a satisfying balance for all of you.

6) Always in agreement

It is not likely that two people with different life experiences will always agree with their responses or perspectives in the relationship. Communicate with “I feel” statements and reflect on each other’s perspectives to increase validation and empathy when experiencing distress when you perceive your partner is not supportive or is struggling to see your point of view.

7) Always providing solutions

It may not be reasonable to always provide solutions to each other when experiencing stressful situations. At times, providing a solution too soon can be dismissive or invalidate a person’s emotions regarding the situation. It may also be impossible to find solutions to all problems. Shift to listening and empathizing with each other and ask if a solution is desired before suggesting it.

8) Always forcing change

At times, significant others can unintentionally behave in ways that can trigger you, but it is not realistic to always ask them to change their behaviours or personality. Frequently being forced to change can impact your self-esteem, sense of freedom, and safety in the relationship. Reflect on why the behaviour causes distress and evaluate if the situation can be better addressed through challenging unhelpful thoughts or potentially seeking couples counselling to overcome the trigger.

9) Always having sex regularly

Factors like sex drive, stress, hormones, kids, and lack of communication about sex can impact the frequency of sex. Clarify what initiation looks like for each of you and explore possibilities of engaging in intimate touch, flirtation, or other forms of intimacy when either or both of you are not in the mood to engage in sex to preserve this connection.

10) Never changing appearance

Believing that your partner will never gain weight or retain their looks throughout time may contribute to shame or body image issues especially when this expectation is expressed through criticism. Accepting and loving your partner as they are can help you maintain fondness and admiration for them conducive to maintaining your level of attraction.

Talk with your partner about healthy expectations

If you noticed some unrealistic expectations exist within your relationship, consider why these are present and if they could be resolved by subscribing to healthy expectations instead. In some cases, these expectations develop alongside retroactive jealousy from previous relationships. You may begin this conversation by exploring the goals of the relationship and how these healthy expectations may promote your goals through an “I feel” perspective. Be open to revisiting these conversations and adapting your expectations as the relationship evolves.

What to do when your expectations don’t align

When expectations are founded on differences in personality or values, these can turn into perpetual problems. Seeking compromise and furthering your understanding of your partner can support you in discussing these perpetual mismatched expectations. Work together to compromise by sharing the parts of the expectation that you are inflexible and flexible in and check to see how realistic the inflexible parts are. Ask questions to better understand why this expectation is important to them and reflect your understanding to increase empathy around this expectation and your partner’s experience of it.


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