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How expectations change relationships

When you get right down to it, you hear what you expect to hear, you see what you expect to see.

Expectations change the experience.

If you walk into a conversation with a friend and expect it to be a litany of complaints about their job or relationship or the state of the world, more than likely that’s exactly what you’ll get. Another friend could enter the same conversation more open and interested in connecting with this person, and walk away from the conversation feeling energized and excited.

So what’s the difference?

Expectations change the experience.

And I’ve found this rule applies to relationships.

See, the patterns that infect every important relationship comes from your parents. Like it or not, the way your parents modeled marriage and family influences what you do in your own marriage and family.

If your parents modeled an affectionate relationship, you’ll most likely carry this model forward — or, perhaps go to the other extreme and break the cycle. Either way, the influence is still there. If your parents were good communicators when it came to the sticky topics: money, discipline and parenting styles, intimacy, and so forth, then you can most likely handle the tension most people avoid when it comes to talking about the tough things in life.

If this idea gets you down, don’t worry.

You can change this pattern, if you choose. When you understand some of the forces at work in your relationships and life, you allow the possibility of your past no longer dictating your future.

There are two family-of-origin systems fighting to gain control of this newly-formed system called “your marriage.” Couple this with the idea that you see what you expect to see, and hear what you expect to hear, and it’s no wonder there are times of conflict in your relationship.

There are many people I have met in my work as a counselor that are shocked at this fact. They’ve held on to the fairy tale version of marriage for too long. Maybe you have, too; movies and TV often portray relationships only as an alluring time of romance, love, laughter and joy.

You know what I mean — “And they all lived…”

If you can complete that sentence, you might’ve had that illusion as well.

(photo source)

The onus rests on your shoulders to make the most out of your life. What do you expect from your relationship and marriage? If you expect things to be tough, most likely they will be. If you expect your marriage to be rocky, it will.

I’m not advocating that you not examine reality honestly. But you must examine your expectations. After all, expectations are really just planned disappointments.

What if you actually believed this about expectations? What if you changed your focus and outlook? I’ll bet many aspects of your life will begin to change. Problems in life and relationships are inevitable — struggling is optional.

Rather than spending a lot of time trying to change the wind in your life, adjust your sails.

Remember this phrase when it comes to your relationship: “I can only control me.” When you know this is true, you can spend less time worrying about what he is doing, or why he’s not “in to you,” or whatever — and more time growing and improving yourself.

The next time you have a conversation or encounter with your significant other, go into it thinking, “I can only handle the way I react and interact, and I free him to only handle himself.” See what happens. I think you may be pleasantly surprised.

What’s your experience with expectations? Are they really just planned disappointments?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. giozi

    What a coincidence. Today I talked about friendship too. I expect to share moments, happiness and don’t be alone.

  2. Micha

    I think it’s normal to have expectations. They are going to change in disappointments, when you don’t talk about it with your partner. Talk about your wishes and expectations, I’m sure, your partner will have some too.

  3. Alison @ Femita

    “Rather than spending a lot of time trying to change the wind in your life, adjust your sails.” This is such an important lesson life has taught me. It saves you a lot of energy and gives you a whole new state of mind that’s not only useful in relationships. A positive outlook on life in general will create positive expectations, which will then create positive experiences that on their part will only enforce your positive outlook on life. A very powerful cycle!

  4. andie

    in marriage counseling, i always remember what our pastor told us. to NOT have any expectations. you just work on how to bless your spouse/friend/co-worker/whoever. what can you do for them to show them love? in that way, whenever they do something for you it’s a blessing and not something that was owed you. not an easy mindset to keep, but a good place to start.

  5. Tabitha (From Single to Married)

    That’s an interesting thought – that our parent’s relationship helped set up our expectations. I can totally see that. Which is why I have to try hard to overcome that influence since my parent’s marriage ended divorce.

    I think it’s fine to have expectations as long as they are reasonable and attainable ones. And as long as they are communicated and made known to each other.

  6. Sarah Park

    Something Charlie and I say to each other a lot is, “Help me manage my expectations.” It’s our way of communicating that we realize we might be expecting something from a situation or from the other spouse that he/she might not be aware of. It’s our cue to elaborate explicitly about what’s going on in our heads (and hearts).

    I think you made a vital point about the influence of our families-of-origin. We often don’t take that into account, because it’s like the air we breathe.

  7. Susie

    This post contained reminders that I dearly needed today. Thank you. I’ll be sharing it with my husband as the opener for a conversation this evening…

  8. Trevor


    Thanks for the excellent points. I appreciate the reminder to be open when approaching interactions rather then being full of expectations.

  9. Veronica

    I once heard that quote that expectations are just preconceived disappointments and smiled at it. So very true. I can only control me, what I do and how I react to you. Nothing you do can control me. The sooner a person can learn this the happier they will be.

  10. Jamie

    My reaction is that I love this post. After reading it a second time I am having the same difficulty with this concept/philosophy as I always do. There’s something that’s not coming together for me. So here’s an exaggerated (slightly) scenario with the application of the “adjust your sails” philosophy. “Wow I sure feel refreshed by my spouse’s excessive drinking. It’s so great that he/she doesn’t get nasty or abusive. I don’t mind him/her in his/her own world in front of the tv all night every night. It relaxes him/her. Besides taking care of the kids all by myself from 7 am to at least 9 pm really helps me bond with them. And when I can juggle raising my children with all the housework, cooking, laundry & my part-time job I feel proud of my organization and determination. Who needs all that communication, anyway. It would just take time away from cleaning the kitchen or making granola bars or muffins! Isn’t life great?!” doesn’t quite come together for me, but I will admit that the alternative of resenting unmet expectations doesn’t work either. I have to figure out a way to modify the adjust your sails because when it’s in another’s power to adjust the wind perhaps he should get off his chair, turn the tv off, put down his bourbon & do so.

    • a

      I think adjusting your sails may be more like asking yourself…what can i do so that I don’t need the help that I’m expecting and never getting. How can i adjust until what he does or doesn’t do, stops affecting my ability to be happy and balanced. and those might be some really really huge adjustments to make. Would leaving him and being a single mom be harder than what you’re up against now? If that sounds impossible then, it might be really helpful to focus more on the things he does provide and when you’re really feeling it express appreciation for them to yourself and him.. When you’re exhausted and frustrated all of the time, its easy to overlook your partners contribution, the things that are working for you and your family.
      And if leaving him really feels like eventually it would be easier on you and your kids then, how can you work with the situation at hand? Where are you strongest. What can you improve or streamline? How can you adjust your sails into a headwind of positive change? When you’re stuck the first thing you must do is gather your own power and stop throwing your energy into frustration and disappointment. It sounds like you need every ounce of your energy for a lot of other more well served things. Work with what you do have control over, yourself. You will never change him. that’s his job. What can you do to empower your self? What charges your own batteries? I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’ve been there too. Asking myself these questions have really helped me sort things out. good luck.

  11. Chris

    I needed this reminder today. Thanks.

  12. Keya

    Interesting. thanks for sharing. I was just talking about this topic with my brother who is newly married. I told him that if he “changed his thinking, he would change his marriage”. Pretty much the same sentiment of what you have written here. Always nice to read your take on marriage. Thanks!

  13. Ramblings of a Woman

    Expectations are a tricky thing. I mean, we ought to have ‘some’expectations of how we want our life to be, but expectations that are too high can bring nothing but frustration. I think we have to balance it out and if we have expectations of the people in our lives, it is only fair that we make them aware of them.
    I wrote a post that deals a bit with this, if anyone is interested.

  14. mama

    I’m beginning to think you might be on to something.

  15. Debbie @ Cheaper by the Bakers Dozen

    As a parent of grown children (and some not grown), I think too much emphasis is placed on blaming our own parents. According to your post, we can blame them if we go either way (copying them or going the opposite direction.) While I totally agree, our childhood exposure influences us – I believe the responsibility for our what we do with it, is ours. My husband and I both came from very dysfunctional families – and we realize the lack of role models there – but we’ve been quick to tell our adult children (now, and when they were living with us) how we’ve struggled and how we hope they have better marriages than we do. Our faults couldn’t be hidden anyway, but talking about them – and letting our children know we’re persevering – seems to have benefited them. They all have great marriages – much better than Mom and Dad’s – which suits us just fine.

    I like the perspective I read in the book, Sacred Marriage, that say, “What if God intended marriage to make us holy, not happy?”

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