When you start a relationship — especially if it leads to marriage — you assume the other person wants the same things you want.
You’ve probably never even consciously considered what you expect. Your partner hasn’t given much deep thought to what either of you expects. Each one of you comes to the relationship with what you consider to be normal — and that’s what you assume this new partner wants.
When a loving relationship is new and exciting, it’s easy to look past the times when those differing expectations create confusion or even hurt. But the longer you’re with someone — and the cumulative effect of those differing expectations makes one or both of you unhappy — the more tensions surface. And the more you start thinking there’s something deeply flawed with your partner.
What most people don’t realize is that each relationship has unspoken agreements and expectations — and those unacknowledged expectations destroy happiness and make most relationships toxic.
This isn’t true just with romantic relationships, of course. It can be a problem in any relationship between human beings. And the truth is that whoever holds the power in the relationship — whether it’s acknowledged or not — ends up getting his or her way.
When I was a child, there were ways that I was expected to behave with my father. He never told me that I was to support his lies to other people or that I was never to acknowledge that he was lying to others. But it was part of the unwritten rules of our family.
I can’t even tell you how he communicated those expectations, but they were so invisible that I never even consciously thought about them. All of his expectations for me were invisible to me on a conscious level. They were invisible to me in the same way that water is invisible to a fish or that air is invisible to us. It was impossible for me to imagine life any other way.
When you enter a romantic relationship, you have expectations of what it’s supposed to be like. Maybe you’re unconsciously modeling your parents. Maybe your ideas have come from popular culture. Maybe you’re projecting some version of an ideal relationship that springs from your personalty.
But when your partner has a different expectation or assumption concerning one of these things, you feel that your partner is wrong. If he notices the difference, he thinks you’re wrong. The worst situations are the ones in which each partner assumes the other is wrong about something — but nobody ever discusses it.
For instance, I have a strong expectation in my romantic relationships that we will be completely open and honest with each other about our feelings and thoughts and past hurts. I have a strong expectation that we will talk about those things — that whoever has a hurt or a crisis will be supported by the other person completely and without reservation. And if I don’t get that, I will feel that she doesn’t love me — and I will feel shame about not being good enough.
As I type those things, I find myself thinking that everyone would obviously feel the same way and expect the same things — but that’s just not true. Some people have an expectation that it’s OK to run away from painful feelings and that they have no responsibility to help the other person deal with their hurts or problems.
These people are so out of touch with their feelings — and so scared of looking at real feelings — that their expectation is that it’s OK to run away from such things. Simply because that has been normal in his or her life.
So when I’m in a relationship with someone and I say, “This is what happened to me and this is the way I feel about it,” I expect someone to be willing to talk about what happened and how it affected me. To me, that’s simply a non-negotiable thing that partners do for one another.
So if I have a partner who’s afraid of feelings and isn’t willing to go to emotionally difficult places, we have very different expectations. I’m going to feel unloved. And because it’s completely obvious to me that this is “the way things ought to be,” I am going to react with hurt when someone refuses to do that. And that’s going to trigger shame in me for having needs that someone isn’t willing to help with.
That’s just one small example. A relationship can have many unspoken agreements.
There might be an unspoken agreement that a man is going to spend time away from home for various reasons — maybe hanging out with with drunken friends or even having meaningless affairs which are to be ignored.
In some relationships, it’s expected that a woman is allowed to scream and shout and treat a man like dirt — and he’s not supposed to be upset about it. It could be that one of the partners has a substance-abuse problem, but the unspoken agreement is that “we don’t talk about it.”
There are a million things that you expect which don’t match your partner’s expectations. If these things aren’t discussed and if there aren’t satisfactory agreements — real ones, not unspoken assumptions — about how these things are to be handled, that relationship quickly becomes toxic. And that relationship is gong to die.
If you aren’t getting your needs met in a relationship, it’s probably because you have expectations which differ from those of your partner. It’s very possible that if you had had the foresight to talk about all these things before you married, you never would have married this person. But as long as the expectations remain unspoken and unexamined, resentment and then hatred are going to build.
People in such toxic relationships shouldn’t expect anything to magically change.
The truth is that most people aren’t willing to change even when confronted with such problems. Most people take the attitude that whatever they are — and whatever they believe — is normal and right. And that’s the beginning of the end of love, no matter how good things might have been to start with.
The truth is that these sorts of expectations need to be worked out from the beginning. Once you start down a road of passive conflict, nothing is likely to ever change.
And if you accept remaining in such a relationship, you will spend the rest of your life unhappy. And you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.