Why Your Expectations Sneak Up On You

Expectations are like a measuring stick that we hold our reality up against. If they’re too high, you’re going to feel pretty disappointed in the state of things. Too low, and you might be settling for less than you should.

In the context of relationships, expectations play a huge role in how happy and satisfied you feel. But the process of learning how to manage them in a healthy way can come with its own set of growing pains. Why? What makes it so hard? Well, one reason is that oftentimes we don’t even realize we have them, or if we do, we don’t understand where they came from.

For example, let’s say you’re spending your first fall together as newlyweds and homeowners. Halloween is coming up, and your spouse just came home with what appears to be an entire store’s worth of decorations (including lawn ornaments!). Suddenly you’re in an argument. You’re mad you weren’t consulted about the decorations, and your spouse is hurt that you don’t want to participate in their favorite holiday. You both might be asking yourselves, “Why am I getting so upset about this? It’s not that big of a deal.”

This misunderstanding could be chalked up to some unacknowledged expectations – your partner’s around how you’ll celebrate Halloween and yours around the decision-making related to the celebration. Understanding where our expectations come from and how we develop them can help us gain insight into why we find ourselves feeling all the things when we least expect it. Let’s take a closer look at the main sources of our expectations.

Family of origin
Perhaps the most influential, and yet hardest to understand, are the expectations that are ingrained in us through our family of origin. As kids, we observed the way our parents and grandparents navigated the dynamics of marriage and relationships, and we thought, “This is the way it is.” For example, you might expect that finances will be handled a certain way in your marriage because that’s what you saw growing up. If your spouse experienced a very different arrangement, that will probably be something you’ll need to discuss.

As we get older, we learn that we do in fact have choices when it comes to what we expect in our own relationships, but even then, our awareness of the unspoken expectations we carry with us can vary. Once we become attuned to the fact that our most basic assumptions about marriage and relationships might very well be expectations we’ve carried with us from our family of origin, we can develop a better understanding of ourselves and our partner.

Societal and cultural influences
Today’s society and culture have a lot to say about, well, everything. From our physical appearance, to how we parent our children, to the way our relationships are formed and structured, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t held an expectation based on what society tells them is “normal.” Some of these might be perfectly realistic, such as expecting that you’ll someday get married or be a homeowner. However, even if they are realistic, you might not hold them for yourself. Perhaps it’s not something you’re striving for or it doesn’t align with your values, and that’s totally okay!

In the context of your relationship, you might find yourself holding certain expectations that, while culturally popular, are actually not a good fit for you and your partner. Take the expectation of having children. If neither you or your partner have felt the desire to have children, holding yourselves to that expectation can be a heavy burden to carry. By recognizing how these expectations originate, you can hopefully feel a sense of freedom in letting them go.

Social media
Never before has there been a time when it was easier to compare ourselves to millions of other people. It’s not always healthy because more often than not, we’re seeing a curated version of others and their relationship, no matter how “real” they say they are. Through hours of scrolling and endless images of beautifully decorated homes, smile-filled vacation photos, matching holiday pajamas, and perfectly-plated meals, we start feeling like our reality is a tad less-than. A tiny seed of subconscious expectation has been planted, even if we know better than to fully internalize it. It’s hard to not feel a bit inadequate sometimes, like we could be a little better, or be doing a little more. At the end of the day, don’t let random “influencers” have a negative influence on your relationship.

Personal desires and perceptions
Sometimes you have certain expectations simply because that’s what you want or what you perceive to be ideal. One could argue that these should be the easiest expectations to adjust or temper, but that’s not always the case. For example, if you’re someone with a high achieving or perfectionist personality, you might hold very high expectations for yourself and others, even if they’re sometimes unreasonable. Or maybe you always envisioned one of you being able to stay home with the kids, but financially that hasn’t been an option. Some of these expectations may fall away on their own or change over time as your reality and desires change. If you’re able to recognize when you’re feeling upset or disappointed due to expectations you’ve created within yourself, it can help you gain some perspective on the situation.

So what?
Expectations shape our perception – of ourselves, our partner, and our relationship. When we experience conflict, dissatisfaction, or miscommunications related to expectations it can feel frustrating and hard to pin down. Gaining an understanding of where our relationship expectations come from, whether they are unspoken, ingrained, or more explicitly decided upon, can help you figure out – individually and as a couple – whether they are worth living up to.

If you and your partner are struggling to get on the same page when it comes to expectations, examining your values and what’s most important to you is a good place to start. Remember, expectations will change along with your relationship and season of life, so it’s important to keep communicating about them. Our Discussion Guide for Couples includes a section on expectations and will give you a solid foundation for an intentional conversation.