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            “ But I expected it to be a lot better than this!”
    

 
Have you ever traveled with unrealistic expectations? Most people do. On occasions we journey to a destination which we think will provide a wonderful life experience, only to be deeply disappointed with the reality that awaits us. Sometimes we grossly underestimate the travel time to our destination, and as a result we encounter some unwelcomed misery (like running out of fuel, needing a bathroom stop, or not finding food to ease our hunger). We may unrealistically expect every other driver to follow perfectly the rules of the road, and our consequent inattention to defensive driving results in a major collision. Whether our experience is a brief trip down the road or a venture into relationships, one principle is certain:  a dependence upon unrealistic expectations is an open invitation to disappointment and even disaster. Without a doubt traveling through life with unrealistic expectations can be a head-shaking, health-threatening, and heartbreaking experience.

                                          

            “I guess I just expected. . .”
                       

 
If I’ve heard this statement once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, and I can see danger ahead! I’m in a therapy session with a couple or with an individual, and we’re exploring relationship stress. For some reason one partner is clearly very upset about what has happened within the relationship. There is disappointment and disillusionment about something that the other partner either did or failed to do. The resulting hurt expresses itself negatively through sadness and emotional withdrawal--or through anger and retaliation.
  
My question:   “So, what is there about his behavior that has hurt you so much?”
The response:  “Well, somehow I just expected. . .”
 

There it is—the underlying issue—expectations. We enter into a friendship or a marriage with expectations of what will or will not happen within that particular relationship. Whether recognized or not, expectations are present in every human relationship. When fulfilled, these expectations bring joy and satisfaction; when unfulfilled, they bring hurt and dissatisfaction. Without a doubt expectations do contain an element of danger.
 
 
Problems understandably occur when a person chooses deliberately to ignore or frustrate the other person’s expectations. That choice, whether made out of apathy or malice, leads to the predictable deterioration of the basic relationship. However, the pattern that I see more often actually revolves around ignorance rather than unconcern or hostility. What would you predict will happen if you don’t understand my expectations of our relationship? What if I’ve never revealed or clarified to you what I want or need? Suppose, like most people tend to do, I just assume that somehow you will know specifically and clearly what I expect, and I further assume that you will do everything possible to fulfill my expectations to my personal satisfaction. Can you predict the outcome? When I fail to self-disclose my expectations to you I set up a situation in which fulfillment is unlikely. Realistically, how can you meet my expectations if you don’t even know what they are? Conversely, how can I fulfill your expectations of me if I don’t understand what they are? The resulting frustration is definite and destructive.
 
 
The failure to understand and fulfill mutual expectations lies at the heart of most relationship conflict and breakup. Couples argue and fight about surface symptoms while they ignore the underlying issue—unfulfilled expectations. So, what do we need to do about this important issue of relationship expectations? How can we develop a process that will increase mutual understanding and fulfillment of relationship expectations?

 

                                          

            “Please have a safe trip. . . ”
                       “Be careful as you travel. . .”
                              “Come back in one piece. . .”

How often have you heard these words from friends and family as you’re embarking on a journey? Obviously, they’re concerned about your health and safety. Your safe return is a high priority to them—and no doubt to you as well.
 
 
However, we understand that no journey is guaranteed for safety. The road of life is filled with struggles and stresses.
 
Realistically, life could be thought of as “The Hardship Highway.” Cars wreck, trains derail, and airplanes crash. Accidents occur and injuries are sustained. Additionally, illnesses develop and lives may be disrupted or destroyed.  People hurt and people die. Emotional pain may cause intense personal suffering that threatens optimism and hope. Human mistakes make messes, and our messes bring misery. Through these harsh experiences we grasp the reality of life’s journey:  suffering is indeed a part of the trip. For some folks the extent of the suffering seems small; for most people, however, the suffering is significant. Maybe there should be a huge warning sign as we begin our journey through life:  “Warning! Hazardous Road! Travel at your own Risk beyond this Point!”

During my thirty years as a professional therapist I’ve seen heart-wrenching and life-changing hardships, both within individuals and within families. Clients have struggled personally with physical, emotional, and mental health problems. Couples have suffered from relationship stress ranging from unresolved conflicts to separation and divorce. Families are strained and stressed from a myriad of issues as they try to adapt to losses and changes that occur during the family life cycle.
 

                                   “I have a gift for you.”

        
A gift—for me? All right! Bring it on! My excitement grows as I anticipate the gift. Okay, so I like gifts. What about you? I bet you like gifts, too.
 
 
Actually, most of us love to receive gifts, and we celebrate the excitement and the joy of the process. The occasion may be the Christmas holidays, a birthday, another special event, or just an ordinary day. Yeah, whatever the day--just bring on the gifts!
 
 
However, there may be an exception—when the gift has strings attached! You’re in a relationship of some type and the other person honors you with a gift. Initially, you appreciate and enjoy the gift. Then, to your dismay you find out that the giver now expects something of you regarding the gift. Hmmm . . . strings!
 
 
When you practice gift-giving within your relationships, do you give gifts with strings attached or with no strings attached? In regard to gift-receiving, which type of gifts do you prefer to receive—with or without strings attached? Unfortunately, many people tend to attach strings to the gifts they give, and too often as recipients we feel frustrated because of those strings. Somehow we just don’t like the stress that comes with strings!

                                   “You’re overloaded. You have to stop.”

        
The policeman’s orders may cause unwelcomed stress for the driver of the overloaded truck or car, but they usually bring relief—and perhaps a smile—from other drivers who resent the highway hazard. We encounter these overloaded vehicles much too frequently. Representing risk and threat, they’re on the highways with us, usually in front of us blocking or impeding our progress. We don’t like getting stuck behind them for fear that their load will give way and come crashing back on us. Perhaps the legal problems and the financial penalties will motivate the “overloaded driver” to be more respectful of highway safety.  
 
 
Have you felt overloaded in your personal or relationship journey? Sometimes we travel along life’s roadway with an overload of stress simply because life has a way of getting quickly complicated and quite cumbersome. Life’s burdens become very heavy and we sputter along the highway of life wondering if we’ll be even able to reach the next rest area. Some of the stress we carry along with us is legitimate and logical; we just do our best to keep moving. However, some of our harmful “overload stress” is self-induced and self-maintained, particularly the emotional trash we choose to drag along with us. Safe travel as an individual or as a relationship requires a vital life skill:  unloading our trash!

                                   “Are we home yet?”

Those words still ring in my memory after many years. Our family would be heading home from some type of trip, and throughout the journey my girls would frequently ask, “Are we home yet?” My usual response? “No, not yet. Go back to sleep.” (Or, “Hang in there, we’ll be home soon.”)

The question is not just a kid’s question.  I’ve thought the same thing, “Am I home yet?” And I’ve said, “I’m so ready to be home.”
 
 
What do you usually say when you’re in the “final stretch” of a journey? You’re almost at your destination. You’re extremely weary and in desperate need of rest. Perhaps you’re in physical pain from the rigors of the trip. You’re eager to be finished. When you open your mouth to speak, what will your words describe? Joy? Celebration? Relief? Frustration? Disappointment? Anger?
 
 
Suppose for a moment that the journey under consideration is your life. You know that your life on earth is ending; death is the next exit along life’s interstate highway. Your family and friends have gathered around you to visit and to say goodbye. Emotions seem intense as each person present strives to make sense of the occasion. You’ve given serious thought to your final words, assuming and perhaps hoping that your last thoughts will be taken to heart by the hearers. What are your final words?
 
 
Final words. I’m intrigued by a person’s last words. They seem to hold a profound meaning while they often exert a powerful influence. Regarding this issue of “final words,” could I share a personal experience with you? A while back I was asked by the leadership of my home church to serve as the guest speaker at the July 4th evening service. (Our minister was out of town celebrating the birth of a new grandson.) Since the occasion was a church service, I obviously began considering topics of a spiritual nature. One subject kept returning to my heart—the death of Jesus on the cross, particularly the seven statements he uttered while on the cross. My interest increased as I read the Biblical accounts of his death and the events which led up to the crucifixion.

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