Unrealistic Relationship Expectations and How to Overcome Them

by | Last updated Apr 17, 2024

Love stories fill our imaginations, promising whirlwind romances and happily-ever-afters. But when the glow of infatuation fades, what remains? Often, a stark contrast between these unrealistic relationship expectations and the messy, beautiful reality of partnership.

The gap between reality and our expectations in a relationship can often lead to a sense of disillusionment. Understanding this gap is crucial for fostering a more fulfilling connection with our partners. Let’s unpack some of the most common unrealistic expectations in relationships, exploring where they come from, their impact, and how to overcome them and build love on healthier ground.

Where Do Unrealistic Relationship Expectations Come From?

Our expectations are a blend of many influences:

  • Family Dynamics: The environment in which we’re raised plays a pivotal role. If our childhood home avoided conflicts or, conversely, was filled with them, it significantly shapes our approach to handling disagreements in our own relationships.
  • Past Relationships: Our past relationships can set a precedent for future ones. They might leave us guarded, leading us to set barriers that are too high or expectations that are too low, as a protective measure.
  • Attachment Styles: Established during our formative years, our attachment style is a significant undercurrent in how we perceive and engage in relationships. It influences our expectations around how to build intimacy, the fulfillment of our needs, and the overall sense of security with our partners.
  • Fairy Tales and Rom-Coms: Early exposure to fairytale stories evolves into an appetite for romantic comedies, painting an idealized narrative of love and expectations for marriage. Such stories often wrap up with a neat “Happily Ever After,” bypassing the real work relationships require. This sets an unrealistic benchmark for love, where grand gestures are expected, and conflicts resolve almost magically.
  • Social Media: Social media platforms are saturated with images of idealized couples, presenting only the highlights while omitting everyday challenges. It’s normal to compare our own relationships to others we encounter online. Unfortunately, comparing our complex, real-life relationships to a curated facade posted online often fosters a sense of inadequacy.
  • Unmet Needs: Entering relationships, we often carry a basket of unmet needs, hoping our partner will fill it. However, expecting them to always understand our needs without communication is a recipe for disappointment. It’s essential to differentiate between what we want and what is realistic to expect.
  • Controlling the Uncontrollable: It’s also important to acknowledge that part of why we fall into this trap is a natural human desire for control. Relationships inherently involve another person’s unpredictable actions and emotions. Unrealistic expectations are sometimes an unconscious attempt to control a situation that is fundamentally meant to be shared.

list of healthy vs. unrealistic expectations in relationships

20 Common Unrealistic Expectations in Relationships

Let’s explore a wide range of unrealistic expectations in relationships that couples often encounter.

Unrealistic Expectations About Your Partner

1. Perfection from Your Partner

The Problem: We’re bombarded with images of seemingly perfect couples in media and social feeds. That, coupled with our desire for ideal love, creates the illusion that our partner should be flawless. This leads to unrealistic expectation in relationships, causing moments of imperfection to feel disproportionately hurtful.

Example: Your partner makes a careless comment that hurts your feelings. Instead of communicating the hurt and addressing it, you spiral into a cycle of assuming they don’t care enough about you, letting the unrealistic expectation of perfection cloud your perception.

How to Overcome: Embrace your partner’s humanity (and your own!). Remember, we all bring strengths and weaknesses to the table. Focus on appreciating their positive qualities rather than dwelling on the occasional missteps.

2. Mind Reading

The Problem: Miscommunication arises when we expect our partner to intuitively know our needs and feelings without telling them. Even people with incredible empathy might misread signals or get it plain wrong.

Example: Instead of expressing your desire for help with chores, you hope your partner notices how stressed you are and automatically offers assistance. Noticing their obliviousness, you feel uncared for, but that may be miles from their intention.

How to Overcome: Work together to understand your needs and wants in the relationship. Express your needs and feelings clearly: “I feel overwhelmed, would you mind helping me with the dishes?” or “I’m feeling a little down, could we have a cuddle?”

3. Your Partner Will Change for You

The Problem: While people grow and evolve in relationships, expecting dramatic change to fit your desires is an unrealistic expectation in relationships and creates a shaky foundation. You risk falling in love with a potential you see in your partner, not the reality of who they presently are.

Example: Your partner has a habit you dislike. Instead of an honest conversation about how it impacts you, you assume that over time they’ll magically change to please you. The issue persists, and you feel increasingly resentful.

How to Overcome: Love and accept your partner for who they are today. If certain traits clash with your core values, start with an open conversation.

4. Your Partner Fulfilling Every Role Perfectly

The Problem: The belief that our partner should be our everything creates an unrealistic expectation the relationship. Your partner isn’t a best friend, therapist, cheerleader, and activity partner all rolled into one. While they play important roles, it’s unrealistic to rely on them alone for all your social and emotional needs.

Example: You find yourself feeling isolated because your partner doesn’t share all your interests, and you haven’t nurtured your own friendships and hobbies.

How to Overcome: Build a strong support network outside of your relationship. This strengthens you as an individual, takes the pressure off your partner, and enriches your life.

5. Never Being Attracted to Others

The Problem: It is unrealistic to expect is that being in a committed relationship makes you immune to noticing attractive people around you (and the same goes for your partner). This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and fear whenever attraction to someone other than your partner arises. Conversely, you might feel jealous or betrayed if you learn that your partner is attracted to others.

Example: You feel a spark of attraction towards a coworker and immediately panic about your commitment to your partner. Instead of seeing the feeling as fleeting, you become consumed by thoughts of whether you’re “still in love” with your partner.

How to Overcome: Normalize the fact that attraction can happen even in committed relationships. Talk openly with your partner about this. The key is how you choose to respond to those feelings. Reaffirming your choice to prioritize your relationship is the true testament of commitment, not the existence of attraction itself.

6. Your Partner Prioritizes You Over Everything Else Always

The Problem: While your partner is important, it’s unrealistic to be their absolute top priority at every single moment. This kind of expectation sets everyone up for disappointment.

Example: Your partner dedicates a day to help a friend or family member with something. Instead of being supportive, you feel hurt and neglected, expecting their focus should always be on you first.

How to Overcome: Recognize that healthy relationship expectations require balance. Support your partner’s need for personal time, involvement with family and friends, and their individual goals.

7. Unwavering Attention

The Problem: This expectation disregards the reality that everyone needs time for themselves. Expecting constant engagement within a relationship is unrealistic and unhealthy.

Example: You feel hurt if your partner needs downtime alone to read, scroll social media, or pursue their own interests, believing they should always want to dedicate all their spare time to you.

How to Overcome: Respect each other’s need for individual time and space. Nurture your own hobbies and self-care, knowing that healthy time apart actually strengthens the connection when you come back together.

8. Sacrificing Personal Dreams for the Relationship

The Problem: Believing that love requires abandoning your aspirations is an unrealistic expectation for any relationship. It can lead to resentment over time, undermining the foundation of a healthy relationship.

Example: You postpone pursuing further education or a career change to accommodate your partner’s plans. Years later, you feel frustrated and trapped, unfairly placing the blame for your stalled dreams on the relationship.

How to Overcome: Prioritize open communication about your dreams. A healthy relationship fosters mutual support and encourages individual growth. Finding ways to incorporate your dreams alongside the shared journey creates a stronger bond.

Unrealistic Expectations About the Relationship

9. Constant Romance and Passion

The Problem: Movies and romance novels sell us an image of everlasting, heart-thumping passion. While intense passion often marks the early stages of dating/relationships, it naturally mellows as couples settle into a deeper sense of intimacy and security with one another. This transition feels like a loss if we’re stuck on the Hollywood model, creating an unrealistic expectation in relationships.

Example: You compare the calmer, everyday displays of affection to the all-consuming passion of the early days and worry that the “spark” is gone. You tell yourself that the relationship or person has become “boring” even though the way they treat you makes you feel deeply safe and secure.

How to Overcome: Recognize that love evolves over time. Appreciate the deeper intimacy and security that develops, while also actively working to rekindle the spark when needed.

10. Agreeing on Everything

The Problem: Two unique people coming together means occasional (or frequent!) differences in opinions, tastes, and perspectives. Expecting complete alignment stifles individuality, leading to conflict avoidance, and represents another unrealistic expectation in relationships.

Example: You pick restaurants, movies, and vacation spots to avoid the discomfort of disagreement, secretly feeling like your preferences don’t matter as much.

How to Overcome: Celebrate your differences – they add spice to life! Focus on creating a safe space where you can both express your viewpoints respectfully. Learn to compromise or take turns making decisions.

11. Living a Conflict-Free Life

The Problem: Expecting zero conflict puts immense pressure on the relationship, creating fear around expressing any dissatisfaction. This unrealistic expectation in relationships leads to unresolved issues bubbling beneath the surface, damaging trust.

Example: If facing a challenge, you and your partner prioritize sweeping issues under the rug to keep the peace, instead of engaging in healthy resolutions.

How to Overcome: Expect bumps in the road. Develop healthy conflict resolution skills that prioritize respectful communication and focus on finding solutions that benefit you both.

12. Instant Conflict Resolution

The Problem: We long for quick solutions to relationship problems, but conflict resolution often requires time and space. Holding onto an expectation of immediate fixes sets us up for disappointment and frustration when disagreements aren’t resolved within our preferred timeframe.

Example: You have an argument with your partner and become agitated when they need time to cool down before discussing it further. Instead of respecting their need for space, you push for an immediate solution, escalating the conflict.

How to Overcome: Be patient. Embrace the fact that conflict resolution can be a process. Try taking breaks during disagreements when needed, and revisit the issue when both of you are calmer. Sometimes, the best solution is found when emotions are less raw.

13. No Effort After Commitment

The Problem: The “happily ever after” trope convinces us that commitment is the finish line. In reality, successful relationships are like gardens that needs constant tending. Expecting everything to effortlessly stay perfect is an unrealistic relationship expectation and can lead to complacency and a gradual decline in connection.

Example: After a few years together, you and your partner stop making time for date nights, meaningful conversations, or thoughtful gestures. The relationship feels less vibrant, and you start to miss the initial excitement.

How to Overcome: Consciously choose to invest in your relationship daily. Prioritize communication, schedule quality time, express appreciation, celebrate milestones, and actively rekindle the spark when needed.

14. Your Sex Life Should Always Be Amazing

The Problem: Media often portrays effortless, mind-blowing sex as the norm, neglecting the reality of fluctuating libidos, stress, and changes in desire over time. Expecting every encounter to be explosive sets the stage for feelings of inadequacy and sexual anxiety.

Example: You compare your real-life sex life to idealized depictions in movies or online. When your encounters don’t meet this unrealistic standard, you feel disappointed or worry that your relationship is lacking.

How to Overcome: Prioritize open communication about sex, including your desires, needs, and changes in preferences. Focus on pleasure, exploration, and intimacy, rather than performance pressure. Be patient during times of low desire and work together to find ways to reignite the spark.

Unrealistic Expectations About Personal Fulfillment

15. Always Feeling “In Love”

The Problem: The rollercoaster of butterflies and romantic intensity is often fueled by novelty. Expecting this feeling to last forever is an unrealistic expectation for your relationship.

Example: You feel a dip in the intense feelings you experienced at the start of the relationship and worry that this means love is fading.

How to Overcome: Understand that it’s normal to have highs and lows in long-term relationships. Actively cultivate appreciation and connection through regular communication and shared experiences, ensuring the relationship remains vibrant and resilient through changing emotions.

16. Your Partner’s Interests Should Always Align with Yours

The Problem: This expectation erases individuality and limits opportunities for growth within a relationship. Assuming your partner should like everything you like can become stifling and foster resentment over time.

Example: You love hiking and secretly hope your partner will ditch their passion for gaming to join you on your outdoor adventures every weekend.

How to Overcome: Encourage your partner’s independent interests, and expect the same support in return. This fosters a healthy atmosphere where you grow both as individuals and as a couple.

17. Your Partner Should Complete You

The Problem: The “you complete me” ideal leads us to believe that wholeness can only be achieved through another person. This places an unfair burden on your partner and leads to codependency, where your self-worth is solely tied to the status of your relationship.

Example: You lack hobbies or solo activities outside the relationship. When your partner isn’t available for quality time, you feel incomplete and lonely.

How to Overcome: Cultivate your self-esteem and sense of identity. Pursue passions, develop friendships, and maintain interests that give you a sense of fulfillment independent of your relationship.

18. Your Partner is Responsible for Your Happiness

The Problem: When we fall deeply in love, it’s easy to hand over the keys to our happiness to our partner. We rely on them for validation, entertainment, and a sense of purpose. This externalization of happiness creates an unrealistic expectation in relationships and leaves us vulnerable to disappointment. If our partner fails to meet our expectations, our sense of well-being crumbles.

Example: You feel bored and restless while your partner is preoccupied. Instead of finding activities you enjoy or spending time with friends, you resent your partner for ‘not keeping you happy.’

How to Overcome: Prioritize your internal sources of happiness. Cultivate interests, hobbies, and a sense of personal identity outside of your relationship. Own your happiness: it’s not your partner’s job to fill a void only you can fill.

19. Your Relationship Will Fix All Your Problems

The Problem: It’s unrealistic to place the burden of solving all pre-existing personal issues on the shoulders of the relationship. This leads to disappointment as your relationship naturally encounters challenges, just like any other aspect of life.

Example: You struggle with low self-esteem and believe a loving partner will somehow heal those deeper wounds, eliminating all your insecurities.

How to Overcome: Focus on personal growth. Consider therapy or self-help to address deep-rooted issues before they begin to impact your relationship. While a supportive partner provides a safe space for healing, the work ultimately lies with you.

20. A Fairy-Tale Romance

The Problem: Comparing your relationship to fictional romances creates a feeling of constant dissatisfaction. This unrealistic expectation in relationships leaves you missing out on the beauty of your actual connection.

Example: You feel your relationship is flawed because it doesn’t match the idealized images in movies and books.

How to Overcome: Appreciate the authenticity and genuine love of your real relationship. Embrace challenges as an opportunity to grow stronger together. Recognize that even the most successful relationships aren’t perfect – and that’s part of what makes them so special.

The Impact of Unrealistic Relationship Expectations

Unrealistic expectations in a relationship can insidiously erode the foundation of even the healthiest partnership. Let’s explore some of the problems born from unrealistic relationship expectations:

  • Disappointment and Resentment: When reality falls short of the idealistic image in our minds, disappointment is inevitable. This disappointment, if left unchecked, morphs into resentment towards our partner. We unfairly blame them for not living up to impossible standards.
  • Decreased Self-Esteem: When we feel our partner constantly falls short, it can take a toll on our self-esteem. We may internalize the perceived shortcomings as a reflection of our own unworthiness of love, further fueling a negative cycle.
  • Loss of Trust: Unrealistic relationship expectations foster an atmosphere where it feels impossible to truly succeed. Over time, this erodes trust. It may lead to one or both partners questioning if genuine happiness is even attainable within the relationship.
  • Communication Breakdown: Unrealistic expectations in a relationship make open communication incredibly difficult. We may fear expressing our needs for fear of being seen as demanding, or we may withdraw, believing our partner will never truly understand us.
  • Increased Conflict: Unmet relationship expectations breed conflict. Frustration simmers below the surface, erupting during unrelated triggers. Arguments become circular, as the root cause—often an unrealistic expectation—is never truly addressed.
  • Emotional Distance: Feeling unheard, misunderstood, and emotionally invalidated creates emotional distance. The intimacy and warmth that once characterized the relationship may fade, replaced by a sense of going through the motions.
  • Loneliness Within a Relationship: Ironically, unrealistic expectations can make us feel alone even when in a committed partnership. The sense that our partner will never fully satisfy us creates a profound sense of isolation.

Examples of the Impact

  • Scenario 1: You believe your partner should intuitively know your needs. When they fail to read your mind, you feel hurt and neglected. This leads to passive-aggressiveness, making your partner feel confused and frustrated.
  • Scenario 2: You expect a relationship to fix your insecurities. Instead of doing your personal growth work, you lean heavily on your partner for validation. This unreasonable burden leads to them feeling suffocated and withdrawing.
  • Scenario 3: You long for constant passion, believing it’s the hallmark of true love. During natural ebbs and flows, you question your connection, missing out on the deeper security and intimacy developing within the relationship.

How to Address Unrealistic Expectations in Your Relationship

Okay, so now that we’re aware of the problem, how do we fix it? Here are some key strategies:

  1. Get Curious About Your Expectations: Take some time to honestly reflect. Journal about your expectations regarding communication, intimacy, support, time together… everything. Do any stand out as potentially unrealistic? A relationship expectations worksheet can be a helpful tool for this self-reflection process.
  2. Have an Honest Conversation: Vulnerability is scary, but essential. Share your expectations with your partner in a non-accusatory way. Using phrases like “I’ve been realizing that I expect… and this sometimes makes me feel…” can go a long way.
  3. Listen To Your Partner’s Perspective: Their expectations matter too! Listen actively to your partner to truly hearing how they experience the relationship and what they see as realistic and fair.
  4. Find The Middle Ground: The goal isn’t to abandon all of your needs. Rather, work together to redefine expectations in a way that feels fulfilling for both of you.
  5. Focus on Compromise: The journey of overcoming unrealistic expectations in a relationship is never about one partner completely giving in to the other. It’s crucial to find that sweet spot where both partners feel heard and validated. Sometimes, this means tweaking an expectation, and other times, it means adjusting behaviors on both sides.
  6. Reframing Failure: When you and your partner inevitably fall short of certain expectations, shift your perspective. Instead of beating yourselves up about the perceived “failure,” view these experiences as priceless opportunities for growth. Ask yourselves, “What can we learn from this? How can we improve our communication, understanding, or approach next time?”
  7. Seek Professional Help: If unrealistic expectations have significantly strained your relationship, it might be time to consider couples therapy. A skilled couples counselor provides a neutral space to explore the unspoken expectations of both partners. The questions asked in couples therapy can help to facilitate communication, providing you with tools and strategies for finding compromises that lead to a healthier, more fulfilling dynamic.

Final Thoughts

Unrealistic expectations in relationships, while often unintentional, can be detrimental, eroding trust and connection.  By becoming aware of unrealistic expectations in our relationships, we open the door to greater understanding and compassion.

Remember, the goal isn’t to become a perfect couple immune to disappointment, but rather to build a resilient relationship where honesty, open communication, and a willingness to grow together outweigh any idealized image.

The journey of addressing unrealistic relationship expectations may not always be easy. Be patient with yourself and your partner. Celebrate small successes, embrace the opportunities for learning that come with challenges, and don’t hesitate to seek professional support if needed.

By actively working to replace unrealistic expectations with a healthy dose of realism, flexibility, and mutual support, you pave the way for a love that thrives not in a fairy tale, but in the messy, beautiful, and deeply rewarding reality of your shared life.

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