“ 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.
This principle about unrealistic expectations is especially true in our human relationships. Most couples enter into marriage with several key expectations which will never be fulfilled simply because they are not realistic. A spouse could attempt to fulfill such expectations and may even seem to succeed temporarily, but the end result is usually frustration and failure. The same type of death sentence is also inherent in our human friendships in that unrealistic expectations invite mistakes, messes, and misery. It’s no wonder that many people avoid relationships like the plague—the price tag is too high! Someone has humorously written, “When I first got married, it was an ideal; then it became an ordeal, and now I want a new deal!”
However, there is good news: we can learn to do better! The growth process begins as we admit and assess our past relationship failures in order to gain wisdom from our past mistakes. What specific expectations were not fulfilled? Why were these not fulfilled? Did the other person just not try, or were my personal expectations too unrealistic and inappropriate? It is certainly possible that the other person could have made a greater effort, but more likely the problem lies within me. My expectations were too unrealistic. No relationship partner could meet all of my requirements to my satisfaction. Thus, I need to learn how to modify my expectations, to transform them into expectations that are realistic and achievable. We can work toward a relationship in which there is a fair exchange of positive behavior and, as a result, our realistic expectations are fulfilled to our joint satisfaction. But how do we make these important changes?
Basically, our expectations grow out of our personal beliefs about relationships. Unhealthy beliefs lead to unrealistic expectations. While many such negative beliefs exist, there are four that merit special attention.
Unhealthy belief #1:  “It is your job as my spouse to make me happy.”

Most people enter into relationships, particularly marriage, because they hope that the experience will increase their level of personal happiness. That hope is understandable and even workable if the level of expectation is realistic. However, a major problem develops when we rely upon the other person to provide the bulk of our personal happiness. Perhaps I’m thinking, “I’m so miserable and unhappy the way I am now. If I could just get married, I would be happy. My spouse would make sure that I’d be happy. That’s what I need.” Such a belief seems to assume that any two unhappy individuals can get marriage and, presto!—they are immediately transformed into perfectly happy people. More likely, such a relationship will be unhealthy and the attempt will bring only increased unhappiness. An unhappy person searches for someone who is already happy, but the combination of a happy person and an unhappy individual is probably not workable either, simply because the relationship is out-of-balance and too one-sided. One disappointed fellow described his search with these words:  “I looked for ten years for a truly happy woman who could make me happy. Finally I found her, but she wouldn’t marry me—all because she was searching for a truly happy man!” Clearly, this unhealthy belief invites the development of many unrealistic expectations which when unfulfilled will ultimately destroy the relationship.
You might respond, “But if I wait until I’m perfectly happy within myself, I’ll never get married.” Your concern has merit, but the real issue is the word “perfectly.” While we may not be “perfectly happy,” we do need to be reasonably happy as individuals before we’ll be able to create a healthy relationship. That is, I need to assume individual responsibility for my personal happiness, rather than to expect that somehow my spouse will magically transform my perfect misery into perfect happiness. This type of magic-filled expectation is too excessive and unrealistic.
The truth lies within the principle of individual responsibility. A healthy belief might be: “My personal happiness is primarily my work to do. You can contribute to it, but I’m responsible for the bulk of it.”  Such a belief will lead to the development of expectations that are realistic and workable.
Unhealthy belief #2:  “Everything you do is a test of your love for me.”

This negative belief leads to tremendous frustration within a marriage. Unfortunately, many people use this approach on a day-to-day basis. They wake up each morning with the belief that their spouse does not love them and that the spouse must prove his love through specific actions that satisfy their sense of feeling loved. The process is like a bank balance that goes down to zero at midnight. No love exists until the spouse can do enough good deeds the next day that will be interpreted as “now I see that you love me.”  However, even if a positive balance is somehow achieved through good behavior, the spouse remains in great jeopardy. If he messes up in any way, his error will erase all of his deposits made earlier that day, and he’ll quickly be back to a zero balance again. He will never be good enough or behave well enough to satisfy such a partner. It’s an all-or-nothing approach—and a relationship wreck awaits them just around the next curve in the road!
A relationship works better when both partners choose to believe that they are loved by the other person. This positive belief provides a solid foundation that safeguards the basic relationship. Mistakes are made and hurts may result, but the actions are not viewed automatically as a test of love. Making a mistake should not automatically mean that there is zero love present. A “test of love” approach disqualifies every man and woman from relationships, simply because they are human—and humans make mistakes! Real love allows for shortcomings and mistakes. Real love is patient and kind; it does not keep a record of errors. Once forgiven, mistakes are put behind us and are not brought up again as ammunition used for punishment or as a justification for saying, “You don’t love me.” We work hard to grant each other the benefit of the doubt regarding love. We choose to say, “What you just did was hurtful, but I know that you love me. Our love is not the main issue. Now let’s talk about your behavior.”
However, on the other extreme, we must not be naïve about inappropriate behavior. We cannot say that behavior has nothing to do with love. Sincere love generates positive behavior; a lack of love generates negative behavior. We must not justify or excuse misbehavior by saying, “I love you, therefore my actions toward you are irrelevant.” Over the long haul a continuous pattern of negative behavior can erode and undermine even the strongest of marital love.
Thus, we need to avoid two mistakes. First, we determine not to make every action a test of love that will say essentially “You do love me” or “You don’t love me at all.” Secondly, we will not use love as a license to misbehave, as if to say “because you love me, I can treat you any way I want to.” Both errors are very detrimental to the health and happiness of any human relationship.
A healthy belief could be:  “Human relationships contain two people who have shortcomings that may cause mistakes and misbehavior. No one is perfect. While behavior does express and reflect mutual love, neither spouse will look at every action as a total test of love.”

Unhealthy belief #3:  “When you love me, you’ll do everything exactly as I prefer.”

This belief drives us to develop many unrealistic expectations within a marriage. We expect our spouse to agree with everything we think or want. We expect him to do everything in exactly the way we think it should be done. Every variation from our preferences is seen as a lack of love. There is no room for disagreement or difference. The error in this belief is that it is too extreme. The belief leaves no room for honest differences or human shortcomings. It sets a relationship up for eventual dissatisfaction and failure.
Alternatively, a healthy belief about relationships involves the presence of voluntary flexibility, effective negotiation, and mutual accommodation. We practice wisdom in discerning preference from principle. In regard to principles, we hold to our convictions; we stand firm. The violation of principles may constitute a “deal-breaker” and could lead to the ending of the relationship. However, in regard to preference, we practice flexibility. We follow the beatitude, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” A violation of preferences may constitute a conflict, but there should be plenty of wiggle-room for negotiating out the differences and for reaching a point of mutual accommodation. Personal selfishness and prideful ego will attempt to sabotage this negotiation process; therefore, they must be put aside for the sake of salvaging and safeguarding the relationship.
Unhealthy belief #4:  “We can keep doing the same negative thing and life will get better.”

Most people seem to practice this unhealthy belief in many areas of life, particularly within their relationships. As a professional therapist I’ve seen the ripple effects of the belief on numerous occasions, such as in the following examples.
               A husband continues to abuse his wife emotionally and/or physically—
                                and still expects her to show love and affection toward him whenever he wants it.
               Individuals continue to withhold their expectations from their spouses—
                              and still expect their spouses to read their minds and fulfill their wants and needs.
               People continue to neglect the feeding and nurturing of their relationships—
                             and still expect that their relationships will be healthy and satisfying.
               People continue to spend money irresponsibly to maintain their current lifestyle—
                             and still expect that they will somehow get out of debt.
Other examples could be cited, but these will illustrate the unhealthy practice of assuming that we can continue the same behavior and somehow get different results. I’ve heard somewhere that “insanity” could be defined as “continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results.” It may be that there is too much “insanity” in too many relationships!
A healthy belief contains the element of change. If what I’m currently doing is not working for me, I need to change my behavior in a positive direction. Different behavior will hopefully achieve better results. My life—and my relationships—will be better when I’m behaving better. 
Some concluding thoughts. . .

My thirty years of therapy experience in the field of human relationships point me to the following “bottom line.”
        Unhealthy beliefs about relationships generate unrealistic expectations.
        Healthy beliefs about relationships generate realistic expectations.

The four unhealthy beliefs described earlier are the driving force behind many of the unrealistic expectations that stress and strain our relationships. If you detect these beliefs in your own relationship belief system, you’re probably already seeing the destructive power that they have. Hopefully, you’ll be motivated to reject these beliefs as unhealthy and undesirable and to replace them with healthy beliefs that will help you travel safely and successfully in your relationship journeys. The work involved in this transformation will be both deliberate and difficult, but positive change is worth the challenge.
I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.
One final note:  A prior article entitled “Relationship Expectations” is available on this website in the Blogs section. That article contains a process through which marriage partners can identify, discuss, and negotiate their mutual expectations. There is a link to a useful worksheet specifically designed for completing this important process. An audio version of that article is also available under the Audio Travel Guides category in the Resources section.

                                                                                (Blog HR#106)

To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Negotiating Marriage Expectations," click on the image to the right or just click here.

PREMARITAL EXPECTATIONS:  Dr. Baker has developed a worksheet to assist engaged couples as they try to identify, discuss, and negotiate their expectations of each other as a vital part of preparation for marriage. To view this document in PDF format click on the title below.The document can be printed for your usage.

                        "Premarital Preparation:  Exploring Expectations"

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill