Expectation is the root of all heartache.
– William Shakespeare
Awhile back, my mother-in-law visited and it brought up a lot of interesting insights.
I’m sure you’re well aware that entire movies have been made about the worn-out monster-in-law cliche. Unfortunately our case was no different. Without going nuclear and bringing up all sorts of unnecessary details, frankly, we fought like cats in a sack. But I’m going to use that to help you (since if SOMETHING good doesn’t come out of this, I’m about to fling myself in the lake nearby in a concerned effort to swim away).
During these unfortunate interactions, it became clear that my mother-in-law and I both had problems managing our expectations about the way the other person could/should/will behave. It’s been interesting, in a sort of hair-raising way.
So what does this have to do with you? How does me verbally sparring with her benefit you?
Insight into a really common problem—managing your relationship expectations and what happens when they aren’t met. Most conflict is rooted in these subtle, stubborn ideas about what SHOULD happen, what we deserve and how others should treat us.Conflict starts when something goes wrong with any part of the chain.
For example’s sake, say I fail to meet one of your expectations.
Here’s how the failed expectation conflict cycle goes:
Phase 1: You interpret the situation.
You interpret what I did in some way. You can decide whatever you want— that I did it unintentionally, that my blunder was completely intentional, that it was specifically meant to hurt you, whatever.
Note: lots of problems START at this phase since it’s entirely subjective.
Phase 2: You identify a problem with the interaction.
Until something happened that crossed your boundary, you might not have even realized that this was an underlying expectation, but when I trip the line, you perceive that something occurred.
Phase 3: You respond.
Next you decide how to respond. Either you express, in some way, “hey, I had this expectation” (i.e. I thought something else would happen) or you get silently upset that your unspoken boundary was violated.
Phase 4: The other person responds.
I can choose to do something different next time, I can explain why I can’t or won’t meet your expectation, or I can simply ignore you.
Phase 5: Consequences
If I choose not to meet your expectation, you can choose not to address it at all and act passive aggressively, you can decide it isn’t a deal-breaker and let it go, or you can end our relationship.
Every interaction with someone else has the potential to strengthen, weaken or maintain neutrality in your relationship with them.
Ever heard that customer satisfaction actually goes up when people have a conflict with a business that is handled really well?
Same with our personal relationships. When you iron out the wrinkles and speak up gently rather than tearing someone a new one or internalizing it and sulking— it gives your relationship a chance to grow.
On the flip side, the way that you react can really put a damper on connecting with them. You might know deep down that you’re right, but as my relationships psychology professor used to say, “you can be right or you can have a good relationship. But you can’t always do both at the same time.”
That’s why it’s so important to examine your underlying expectations, hold them up to the light and think about them more objectively.
Things to consider about your expectations:
1. What exactly is my expectation in this situation?
Get clear on exactly what it is that did/didn’t happen that was different from your underlying belief about acceptable behavior.
Sometimes we’re upset but don’t actually know the deeper reason why we’re upset. Sometimes it “seems like something “bad happened.” So, what was it? What was your underlying expectation for the situation and how did the other person’s actions differ?
Get really clear here, because sometimes once you go through this thought process, you can nip the whole conflict in the bud with the realization that whatever happened really wasn’t a big deal, you’re just not at your best for whatever reason. This saves everyone involved a ton of grief.
2. Is your expectation reasonable?
For example, it’s reasonable to expect that someone else will treat you with respect. It is unreasonable to expect that on the first date that they will cook you dinner, dance the tango and shower you with gifts. If you go in expecting the wrong things— no matter what they happen to be— you’re going to be upset a lot, and it’s going to be your own damn fault.
3. Have you ever clearly expressed what your expectation or boundary actually IS?
How are you at mind-reading? Not so good, right? Well neither is anyone else (if you are, please share your secrets in the comment section). Your partner will usually go out of their way to make you happy, but you have to express what you want.
When you choose to stew on your upset rather than confronting it somehow, you teach the other person that it’s business as usual between you. It’s delusional to think that if you keep ignoring it, one day they are going to magically know that you’re upset. Giving them the silent treatment or treating them otherwise passive aggressively isn’t going to do anything positive except lead your relationship into a ditch.
4. Can you let it slide or is it a total deal-breaker?
This is decision time. If they really don’t want to grant your request or meet your expectation, is it a deal-breaker for you? Only you can say, but you have to think through the end game of everything you’re doing here. You get to choose whether this is enough of an issue that you want to end the relationship or you’ve got to change what you expect.
The third option – trying to demand that the other person change will be a lesson in futility– which will just make you bitter as the long years wear on, but rest assured, it’s an option– albeit a frustrating one.
The fewer the expectations you can have, the happier you’ll be, in general, all the time.
Overtime, maintaining resentment will only poison YOU. Only you know what your relationship expectations are, but be aware that the more personal expectations you wrack up, the more difficult for the rest of the people in your life… like your hapless daughter-in-law.