Other expectations come from a belief that people are predictable and that what we see today will probably be what we see tomorrow. In the early stages of a romantic relationship everything tends to be roses and unicorns. Over time, some of the unicorns can turn into skunks and some of the roses become broccoli rabe. Both are gross, although the former is the lesser of two evils.
There are also expectations that come about as a result of our understanding of roles (social, familial, workplace etc). These can be influenced by our families and can also be a product of influence from the larger culture. Immigrant families can provide clear examples of how differences in role expectations can play out. Generations raised in the new culture are more likely to become more acclimated to the culture than their parents. This can create a situation in which children operate from expectations forged through exposure to media, different families, the education system etc. Parents, who have less exposure to the culture and who were “programmed” in the old one may have a difficult time understanding or adapting to these expectations and may actually reject them for a variety of reasons.
Expectations are good to have; they provide other folks with a clear understanding of where we stand on a host of important issues and play a critical role in establishing healthy boundaries. They are demonstrative of self respect and respect for others; they speak to the moral code we live by. When they become problematic in relationships, it has more to do with our ability to make some tough calls in effectively managing those relationships.
One trap involves having an expectation of a person that has never met it or is no longer meeting it. You may have discussed the problem with the person ad nauseum over a period of 30 years in therapy with little to no change By continuing to have that expectation of that person, you are setting yourself up for frustration every time it comes up. The more significant the expectation and/or relationship, the bigger the let down.
It might be helpful to consider whether the expectation that’s creating a big deal in the relationship is really that big of a deal. If it really isn’t that important, we may be better served by thinking about other ways we can have the need the expectation represents met- moving towards a position of adaptation (responding to reality) and away from one of influence (changing the reality). This may mean changing how we define the relationship and what we use it for. Some of my clients who struggle with depression or anxiety communicate their frustration with friends who “don’t get it” and give out really valuable tidbits of knowledge like “you’re not really depressed”, “you don’t really believe that depression crap, do you?”, “you just need to get [laid], [drunk], [high], [more useless crap from Ebay] and you’ll get over it” and my personal favorite “I experience the same exact thing that you do and I’m not depressed……… you’re not saying I’m depressed are you? Because I’m not”
Abandoning these relationships simply because what they expected (warmth, empathy, support) was not met in that specific instance may create more harm than good. If the relationships are generally supportive and helpful in other areas, cutting them off may only make things worse. I generally ask clients struggling with this issue to consider keeping depression off the table in these relationships but to continue using them for the other benefits they provide them with.
We should also consider whether adapting to or accepting the fact that the expectation isn’t going to be met changes the nature of the relationship. I know there is a growing movement in the field to push for greater acceptance of open marriages by the “let’s just tell people what they want to hear so we could keep them as clients” and the “let’s just say crap without any real evidence or thought to consequences so we appear modern, novel and intellectual” camps. However, most people would not consider these arrangements healthy marriages. For those folks, the idea of a spouse sleeping with another person would probably cause them to consider either counseling or divorce-the idea of letting go of the expectation surrounding monogamy would be unacceptable.
Lastly, we also have to check our own thinking. Sometimes we have this expectation that people will change because we want them to. This is usually the product of equating love or loyalty with a value or relationship habit which isn’t always wrong-but those are pretty heavy concepts so the expectation should realistically match up to that. Equating the expectation of monogamy with love is one thing; equating love with getting a BMW for your three month anniversary is another.