For most of my life, all I wanted was validation from my family. But instead of warm, encouraging parents I got busy, realistic ones who preferred telling me how hard life was rather than giving me hugs and shouting, “you can do it!”
Every time I went out for lunch with my mom, I would list the number of accomplishments I’d achieved since seeing her. But instead of hearing that she was proud of me, she would look at me with a stone-cold face and respond with, “But are you making money?” I often joked that if Oprah called me one day, my mother still wouldn’t be impressed — or at least she wouldn’t show it.
I spent years distancing myself from my family, and the last couple of years I barely talked to them at all. I believed that I would be happier with only positive, supportive people in my life — and I needed that time to go to therapy and heal my resentment of growing up not feeling loved. But after emerging from 10 years of extensive cognitive behavioral sessions, I’ve finally come to this realization: My parents’ actions weren’t personal. Their lack of hugs weren’t due to believing I was less deserving of love — that’s just how they are.
Recently I got back in touch with my dad and we began repairing our relationship. To my surprise, he called me one day to apologize about not giving me what I needed emotionally when I was growing up, saying that he wished I had a warmer father. He said everything I never thought he would say — and I was so happy that he did. I realized in that moment that I didn’t need him to change — I just needed for us to have that conversation.
When we met up for coffee weeks later, my dad and I talked on a very surface level. He told me about his recent vacation, his work, his new watch. We didn’t talk about feelings or get into the past. And while I personally hate small talk and prefer to dive into deeper issues like politics and relationships, I was okay with chatting that way. My dad had said what I needed him to say, and I understood it took a lot for him to open up like that. After getting the validation I always wanted from my father, I stopped wishing that every conversation would be the deep, emotional talk I never had growing up.
Having that experience with my dad set the stage for talking with my mom weeks later. After waiting for her to put effort into contacting me, I finally decided to reach out and call her. I had come to terms with the fact that even if we didn’t have a good relationship, I didn’t want to regret not having one at all. I decided to set boundaries, and if I was unhappy with the conversation I could end it. It was a decision I never thought I would come to, and it showed me how much I had grown in that time.
When my mom answered, I asked if she wanted to go out for dinner that night. Instead of acting like we hadn’t spoken for two years, she told me how inconvenient it was to ask her to make plans last minute. In the past, I would have hung up the phone and sworn under my breath — but through going to therapy I understood that my mother felt overwhelmed by my impulsivity and needed time to mentally prepare. So, we agreed to have dinner later that week, and I moved the conversation to explaining why I had needed time away from her. I told her that I realized why she was more realistic than encouraging — she had grown up in a way where she had to be — and that I had felt resentment from having more tough love than hugs because I struggled with my mental health. I told her that she didn’t do anything wrong, but at the time I needed to heal because I had taken it personally all those years.
When we met for dinner later that week, I no longer expected my mom to be a completely different person — I just hoped that we would have a respectful conversation. Because I had spent years working on self love, I didn’t feel the need to impress her anymore. Through therapy I had been able to let go of my pain and turned it into love. My mother wasn’t someone who was supposed to meet all my needs — she was just a woman I shared genes with. So, in that moment, we simply became two adults who were connecting — and I was able to enjoy my time with my mom instead of being disappointed that it didn’t go the way I wanted it to.
Changing the way I look at my parents has helped me alter the way I see other relationships in my life. Even though my mom and dad say they want a relationship with me, they work long hours and forget to text me back sometimes. In the past, I would have been offended, thinking, ‘how could the people who conceived me forget about me?’ By remembering that no one’s actions towards me are personal but are only a reflection of themselves, I’ve learned to become more understanding of how people treat me. This has helped me to lose all expectations of my relationships with other people — people I work with, my friends, my lovers. Not in a way where I don’t have needs that have to be met, but where I’ve come to realize that different people will meet my needs in different ways. My parents aren’t necessarily going to be the ones to cheer me on — but I have lots of other people in my life who will.
A therapist once drilled into my head that no one can give you everything you need. Like many people, I used to disagree. We’re raised to believe that our partner is supposed to be our best friend, our lover, our confidant — essentially, our other half in everything we do. That’s what my parents have portrayed in their relationship, as they hardly spend time with anyone other than each other. But after I got out of a long, monogamous relationship and began to explore the polyamorous idea that different people can give you different things, I began to understand why putting expectations on people has only hindered my relationships.
For example, I’ve dated people who are very in-tune with their feelings and able to have deep conversations — but they’re also sensitive and don’t necessarily provide emotional stability. On the flip side, I’ve dated people who are level-headed and able to have intelligent conversations — but they’re not always open about their feelings and can be hard to read. Instead of expecting each of these people to be something they’re not, I can appreciate them for what they enrich my life with, instead of constantly trying to get them to change.
Putting less pressure on the relationships in my life has allowed me to reach out to more people for my needs, causing me to be less disappointed when someone doesn’t fulfill them. If I’m upset and need to talk about an issue and someone doesn’t give me the response I’m looking for — such as a tough love approach — I no longer get upset and think, ‘they must not care about me enough to understand my needs.’ Instead, I tell myself, ‘that’s just how they are,’ and reach out to someone who’s more encouraging than realistic. In this way, I feel cared for, but I also get more than one perspective.
Having less expectations of people also works well if someone is too busy or doesn’t want to do an activity I’m interested in. In the past, I would miss out on so many things because I was waiting for certain people to do them with. I felt like because I was dating a person for a long time or was friends with someone for years that I should wait for them to do those things with me — and when they couldn’t make it or didn’t want to, instead of reaching out to other people who I didn’t know as well but could be interested in what I was doing, I just didn’t go.
These days, I have a better sense of who would be more interested in what, and I plan accordingly depending on personal tastes and personalities. But there are some issues you can’t avoid based on preferences. Like my parents, I’ve had friends who forget to get back to me or hardly contact me to get together, and while I used to be offended and think they didn’t care enough about me to reach out, I understand now that they just have busy lives, trouble balancing everything or get overwhelmed making plans. Some people don’t like organizing things — and since I do, I end up making plans with them first. Relationships take compromise — and learning how others think is a good way to know what kind of compromise that entails. Instead of putting all my effort into making plans with people who are often busy and waiting around for them, I spend more time with those who are more likely available — meeting my needs for connection and freeing up my expectations of others who aren’t as available. So, when we do see each other, there’s no strain on our relationship where I feel resentment or they feel guilty — we simply enjoy our time together.
If you’re like me, you believe time is valuable and that you don’t want to spend it with people who will disappoint you. But understanding that others don’t think the same way you do is key to dropping your expectations of them. Of course, it’s important to meet your needs in any type of relationship — whether platonic or romantic. if someone is disrespectful to you or you don’t enjoy spending time with them, you don’t need to have a relationship with them. But no one needs to meet all your needs — and if everyone gave you the same things, that would be boring! The sooner you realize that your pleasure comes from losing your expectations of people, the more you’ll be able to enjoy people for who they are and what they can give you instead of being disappointed in what they can’t.