All our relationships, whatever their nature, are essentially composed of needs and the meeting of these needs. Our expectations, conscious and/or unconscious, are significant contributors to these needs. For example our expectation when we request a drink from a bartender is that our need for a drink will be met. However if we are not clear in articulating our expectation to the bartender we may end up with a coffee rather than a beer! It’s no wonder then that the weight of expectation often sounds the death knell of relationships of all kinds.
Clarity of expectations is essential; although gaining clarity can prove difficult if the expectation is unconscious. While determining unconscious expectations is hard it is not impossible as demonstrated in my previous article Introspection. We often avoid doing things that are hard, difficult or that make us uncomfortable; the following quote is an inspiration to me when I experience the doubt that inevitably accompanies consideration of taking hard, difficult and/or uncomfortable action:
“…we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept…”
Source – ‘We Choose to Go to the Moon’ speech delivered by John F Kennedy (JFK) 35th president of the United States of America (USA) at Rice University in Houston, Texas on 12 September 1962 – The full text of the speech can be found on a number of sites such as http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm and http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/jfk-space.htm
The constant management of expectations is crucial in maintaining healthy relationships; it’s not easy though as this quote demonstrates:
“Dealing with expectations is really a tricky issue. If you have excessive expectations without a proper foundation, then that usually leads to problems. On the other hand, without expectation and hope, without aspiration, there is no progress. Some hope is essential. So finding the balance is not easy. One needs to judge each situation on the spot.”
Source – The Dalai Lama, ‘The Art of Happiness’ and its condensed derivative ‘The Essence of Happiness’
Lack of expectation management can lead to us becoming attached to things and acts rather than healthily bonding with the person. The question then posed is:
“Are we in love with the person or the way we are being treated?”
How often do we end a relationship to begin a new one where we are being ‘treated the way we want to be treated’? This is sometimes called ‘the grass is greener’ syndrome and often ends in tears as patterns are repeated in the new relationship and we start looking, again, for someone who will ‘treat us the way we want to be treated’. Even worse we may realise that all we had to do with our initial ex was to articulate our expectations and check for understanding as opposed to expecting telepathy! In these cases the initial ex has been hurt so badly by what they viewed as confusing, deliberately hurtful behaviour and made a decision never to get back together again in case the same thing happens. The presence of love, see my article Love and In Love, can be a powerful moderator in these situations increasing the chances of reconciliation.
The management of expectations is very often confused with the lowering of expectations…in my view nothing could be further from the truth. Changing an expectation is a tangible demonstration of effective self-introspection. For example if I expect my partners or friends to always be ready for a chat whenever I want to talk, self-introspection will reveal to me that I am being selfish in a very negative way. Self-introspection enables me to become empathetic and understand that my partners and friends may not always be in the mood to chat.
Personally, my current expectations are to be constantly content, regularly happy and deal successfully with the inevitable, albeit infrequent, negativity (sadness, anger, frustration etc) that will come in to my life. I have also learned that the expectations that cause most misery are those driven by selfishness as opposed to a valid desire to be treated with respect. It is not easy to establish whether or not our expectations are selfish but a quick check is just how angry we get when they are not met. The angrier we get the more likely it is that our expectation is both selfish and unreasonable.
It is also important for us to avoid becoming hostage to our expectations which can result in painting ourselves in to a corner. We should be prepared to change our expectations as advocated by Alain De Botton in his TV series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Seneca on Anger. In this episode, based on the philosophies of Seneca, he suggests that an angry driver change their very optimistic expectations of other drivers to more pessimistic expectations. The rationale being that if we change our expectations, our responses and reactions will change too. Endeavouring to get our expectations met through trying to control external influences is inevitably futile. We are much better off just letting go and changing our expectations which are something we can control; I have certainly found this change in my attitude extremely liberating.
Alain de Botton also says in a Financial Times article:
“Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (“There is nothing which Fortune does not dare”), we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should make an investment, undertake to run a company, sit on a board or leave money in a bank without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of the darkest possibilities.”
While he is writing specifically about financial matters I think that the essence of the message applies equally to relationships.
While I agree with Seneca that “we must hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times” my view is that he is probably a little too pessimistic; my preference is a line from the Alphaville song ‘Forever Young’, recently covered by Australian rock band Youth Group in 2005 for an episode of the hit American television series The O.C.; the line is:
“Hoping for the best but expecting the worst”.
Stay strong and serene.