Navigating Expectations in A Relationship: A Roadmap for Couples

by | Last updated Apr 17, 2024

Everyone in a romantic relationship carries an internal catalog of beliefs about what a “normal” relationship looks like. These are the expectations in a relationship, and whether spoken or unspoken, they exert a powerful influence on how we experience our partnerships.

As a couples therapist, I’ve seen how expectations in a relationship lay the groundwork for disappointment, resentment, and an erosion of trust. Yet, understanding and navigating them skillfully is one of the keys to creating and nurturing a healthy, fulfilling relationship.

This guide is designed to help you unlock the power of expectations within your partnership. We’ll explore everything from setting realistic expectations to managing unmet or unrealistic expectations ones, and from navigating societal pressures to refining expectations as your relationship evolves. So grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable – it’s time to get real about expectations and their role in crafting the love life you deserve.

What Are Relationship Expectations?

Expectations are like the blueprints we carry around in our heads about how a relationship should work. They encompass our hopes, needs, and assumptions about everything from communication styles to how we divide household chores, express affection, and handle conflict. Some of these expectations are formed subconsciously through our past experiences and the relationships we’ve observed, while others are conscious values we choose to uphold.

Relationship expectations can be incredibly helpful in guiding us towards partners who share similar visions for how a relationship functions. But left unexamined or unspoken, they can turn into landmines ready to derail even the most promising connection.

How Relationship Expectations Form

  • Past experiences: Our childhood experiences, attachment style, past relationships with family, friends, or romantic partners, and other factors all lay the groundwork for our future expectations in relationships. Positive experiences can set high standards in relationships, while negative ones may lead to guarded or skewed expectations.
  • Societal, cultural, and religious norms: The society and culture we grow up in significantly influence our relationship expectations. Cultural narratives about “happily ever after” and societal roles in relationships can shape our views on what a relationship should look like.
  • The role of media portrayals: Media, be it movies, TV shows, or social media, often presents an idealized version of love and relationships, which can skew our expectations. These portrayals can make us yearn for perfection in our relationships, overlooking the beauty of imperfection.

List of Expectations in a Relationship

There is no single “right” expectations in a relationship list, but here are some common areas where expectations play a major role:

  • Communication: Do you expect open and honest dialogue? How should conflict be handled? Frequency of contact?
  • Emotional Intimacy: What level of emotional connection and vulnerability do you hope for? How often do you do activities to build intimacy?
  • Affection & Physical Touch: How do you express love and closeness?
  • Support: What kind of support do you expect in times of stress or celebration?
  • Quality Time: How much time spent together is ideal, and how should it be structured?
  • Values & Life Goals: Visions around career, family, finances, where to live – how important is alignment on these?
  • Conflict Resolution: What are the expectations around how to handle disagreements, arguing, and resolving conflicts in the relationship?

Understanding Each Other’s Expectations for the Relationship

Let’s imagine a couple, Sarah and Alex, to illustrate how different life experiences might shape their relationship expectations:

  • Sarah’s Expectations
    • Emotional Support: Sarah grew up in a household where emotions weren’t openly discussed. She craves a partner who can provide the kind of emotional validation and understanding she didn’t receive as a child.
    • Regular Quality Time: Having always had a busy family life, Sarah values focused, intentional time together as crucial for a strong bond.
    • Shared Responsibility: Sarah witnessed her mother taking on the majority of domestic tasks and feels strongly about equitable division of labor with a partner.
  • Alex’s Expectations
    • Physical Affection: Alex comes from a very affectionate family where physical touch was a primary love language. He naturally expects the same from a romantic partner.
    • Reliability: Due to past partners breaking promises, Alex places a high value on consistency and dependability.
    • Occasional Spontaneity: Alex has a structured work life and desires a partner who brings a sense of fun and adventure to balance that out.

Important Note: The key is to recognize the potential ‘whys’ behind your own expectations and to have open conversations with your partner to understand theirs. This process builds empathy and fosters the ability to reach healthy compromises together.

Setting Healthy Expectations in a Relationship

One of the biggest traps is keeping our expectations for the relationship to ourselves. We assume our partner will magically know what we need or hope for, setting ourselves up for frustration when they don’t. Setting healthy expectations in a relationship begins with honest introspection and open communication.

How to Create Healthy Expectations in a Relationship

  1. Reflect on Your Needs: Reflect on Your Needs: Ask yourself: What do I value in a partnership? What do I truly need to feel safe, loved, and supported? How do I want to feel in the context of this relationship? A relationship expectations worksheet can be a helpful tool to guide this self-reflection process.
  2. Consider Your Dealbreakers: What are the non-negotiables for you (aka your relationship standards)? This isn’t about nitpicking; it’s about identifying core values or behaviors that are essential for your happiness in a long-term partner.
  3. Discuss with Open-Mindedness: Choose a relaxed time when both of you are free from distractions to openly share your reflections and actively listen to your partner’s perspective. Remember, the goal isn’t to become carbon copies but to understand where you align and where there may be room for negotiation or compromise.
  4. Embrace Imperfection: No person and no relationship will ever tick all your boxes. Learn to accept your partner’s quirks and find the beauty in their (and your) imperfections.

Communicating Relationship Expectations: Techniques and Timing

Talking about expectations can feel awkward, especially in the early stages of a relationship. Yet, avoiding the conversation won’t make those expectations disappear; it only sows the seeds of future misunderstandings.

Here are some tips to improve communication about expectations in your relationship:

  • Timing Matters: Don’t have this conversation the first time you say, “I love you.” Give the relationship some space to breathe organically. Yet, don’t leave it so long that resentments have time to take root.
  • “I” Statements: Instead of focusing on blame or judgment, use “I” statements to express your feelings and needs. For example: “When I don’t hear from you throughout the day, I feel a bit disconnected.”
  • Be Specific: Avoid vague terms like “more romantic” or “more supportive.” Instead, clearly articulate what those concepts mean to you in actionable terms.
  • Seek to Understand: Remember, this is a two-way street. Listen to your partner’s expectations with genuine curiosity and an open mind.
  • Schedule check-ins: Think of this conversation as an ongoing one that evolves with your relationship. Schedule relationship check-ins regularly to ensure you remain on the same page.

What are Unrealistic Expectations in a Relationship?

Navigating the balance between realistic and unrealistic relationship expectations is like walking a tightrope. On one side, realistic expectations in a relationship provide a solid foundation for trust and growth. On the other, unrealistic expectations in a relationship can lead to disappointment and strain. Understanding the nuances of both can illuminate the path to a healthier relationship dynamic.

Unrealistic relationship expectations often stem from idealized notions of romance and partnership that neglect the complexities of real life. They can set a relationship up for failure by creating unattainable standards. Some examples of unrealistic expectations in a relationship could include:

  • Perfection: Expecting your partner to be flawless and never make mistakes is unrealistic and unfair.
  • Mind Reading: Believing your partner should always know what you want or how you feel without communication sets the stage for frustration.
  • No Conflict: Assuming that a healthy relationship is free of disagreements is unrealistic. When handled constructively, conflict can strengthen a relationship.
  • Constant Togetherness: Expecting to spend all your time together or for your partner to always be available is not feasible and can suffocate the relationship.
  • Changing Your Partner: Entering a relationship with the intention of changing fundamental aspects of your partner’s personality or habits is unrealistic and disrespectful.
  • Happiness Responsibility: Believing it’s your partner’s job to make you happy places an unfair burden on them. Personal happiness is an individual responsibility.

If you or your partner have concerns about unrealistic expectations, consider exploring a list of premarital counseling questions. Regardless of your relationship stage, these questions can help you surface potential misalignments in your relationship a safe and constructive way.

Expectations in a relationship rightfully morph as the relationship matures. In the early stage of a relationship, dating expectations and communication is often at the forefront. As the commitment grows, those expectations may shift towards shared goals, reliability, or how to navigate conflict. Understanding the unique dynamics of each stage helps ensure your expectations remain realistic and healthy.

  • Dating Expectations: The initial stages of dating are about exploration—discovering mutual interests, understanding personal desires, and setting the foundation for communication and exclusivity. It’s a time to learn about each other and to clarify what each person wants in the future.
  • Early Relationship Expectations: Once the relationship solidifies, the focus shifts towards deepening emotional connections. This phase is characterized by the willingness to share vulnerabilities, integrating friends and family into the relationship, and finding the right balance between personal independence and time spent together.
  • Long-Term Relationship Expectations: As partners commit to a long-term future, they face the challenges of managing life’s stresses together. This includes sharing responsibilities, talking about sex and physical intimacy expectations, and encouraging each other’s individual and collective growth.
  • Marriage Expectations: Marriage introduces a new set of expectations, influenced by both societal norms and personal values. Critical life decisions, such as where to live, talking about finances, and whether to have children, require consensus and compromise. Additionally, navigating family dynamics and maintaining a daily commitment to the partnership are paramount in sustaining a healthy marriage.

When to Hold On and When to Let Go of Relationship Expectations

As you and your partner evolve, your expectations will naturally shift as well. Deciding when to adjust your expectations and when to stand firm is essential.

Consider Letting Go of Expectations If:

  • An expectation is rooted in a rigid ideal rather than a core value.
  • You realize you were seeking a sense of control rather than genuine connection.
  • Fulfilling an expectation would require your partner to sacrifice a part of themselves.

Hold On to Expectations If:

  • They align with a fundamental boundary for your well-being.
  • They reflect a value that is vital to your happiness in the relationship.
  • Continually letting go leads to resentment and loss of your sense of self

How to Deal with Disappointment in a Relationship

Feeling disappointed in your partner (or in yourself) can be a completely normal part of being in a relationship. No one is perfect, and there are times when your partner might not meet your expectations or even commit a more serious mistakes that fractures trust in the relationship. Here’s how to handle disappointment in a relationship gracefully:

  1. Don’t Panic: The first twinge of disappointment can trigger a sense of alarm. Take a step back, breathe, and remind yourself that this doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is doomed.
  2. Check Your Perspective: Was the expectation realistic? Did you communicate it clearly? Is this a repeating pattern or an isolated incident? Be honest with yourself before proceeding.
  3. Calmly Communicate: Choose a time when both of you are receptive to a conversation. Express how the unmet expectation impacted you, focusing on your feelings rather than casting blame.
  4. Listen to Your Partner: Did they understand your expectation in the first place? Was there something preventing them from meeting your needs? Seek to understand their perspective on the situation.
  5. Collaborate: Can you find a compromise? Is there an alternative way to meet the underlying need, even if it differs from your initial expectation? Are they willing to change their behavior going forward?

Expert Tips: What Couples Therapists Want You To Know About Relationship Expectations

As a couples therapist, I see firsthand how unaddressed expectations in relationships can lead to disconnection, frustration, and disappointment. Here’s what I often stress to the couples I work with:

  • Identify and Discuss Your Expectations: The first step is openly and honestly discussing your expectations in different areas of your relationship. This creates a shared understanding and provides a starting point for navigating any potential differences. Try working through my Relationship Needs and Wants Worksheet together as a jumping off point to help identify each of your expectations for the relationship.
  • Flexibility is Key: While it’s important to have clear needs and values, it’s unrealistic to expect a partner to fulfill every single expectation. The ability to adapt and compromise is crucial for a thriving relationship.
  • Focus on the Underlying Need: Sometimes, the surface-level expectation is less important than the underlying emotional need it represents. Could that need (for example, to feel secure, heard, or valued) be addressed in a different way that feels more comfortable for both of you?
  • Unmet Expectations as Opportunities: When expectations go unmet, view it as a chance to gain deeper insight about yourself, your partner, and the relationship as a whole. These situations can spark productive conversations and lead to closer, more collaborative solutions.

Common Misconceptions About Relationship Expectations

Let’s bust some common myths that lead to heartache and unrealistic standards:

  • Myth 1: “My partner should know my needs without me saying them.” We are not mind-readers, even with the deepest love. Your partner deserves the clarity of honest communication.
  • Myth 2: “If they truly love me, they’ll change to meet my expectations.” While healthy partners are willing to grow, expecting someone to fundamentally change who they are is a recipe for resentment.
  • Myth 3: “Having expectations means I’m controlling.” Wanting basic needs met, like respect or feeling secure, isn’t about control. It’s about self-respect and seeking genuine compatibility.

When to Seek Couples Counseling

Signs that it’s time to consider couples therapy could include:

  • Repeated attempts to address expectations lead to conflict or dissatisfaction.
  • You find it challenging to understand or empathize with each other’s perspectives.
  • There’s a persistent feeling of unfulfillment or resentment in the relationship.

Couples therapy offers a safe and productive space to explore relationship expectations. Questions asked in couples therapy can help clarify individual expectations within the relationship, examine where expectations align and where they might differ, and develop a shared understanding of expectations going forward.

Final Thoughts

Navigating relationship expectations is a lifelong practice rather than a one-time fix. With awareness and a willingness to work together, expectations can become a stepping stone towards creating a relationship that fulfills you both.

If you crave even more support or have unique relationship complexities you’d like to explore, consider seeking personalized guidance from a qualified couples therapist.

Interested in therapy?

Work with world-class therapists at Holding Hope. Take the first step today by filling out the form below, or click the link to self-schedule a free consultation with Mara, the founder of Holding Hope.

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