Changing Our Expectations in Relationships

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By: Orly Bentata-Goldenberg (Kelman), MHC-LP

As women and as human beings, we have a natural tendency to seek companionship and form different types of relationships from the moment we are born (relationships with parents, relationships with siblings, friendships, romantic relationships). Relationships can be complicated, and the dynamics can change quickly—somewhat like a roller coaster! They can be full of misunderstandings, an imbalance of power, different perspectives, different relational skills, variations in values and ideals, opposite personalities, etc. And in these relationships, we hold both conscious and unconscious expectations.

When we are born, we rely on our parents to take care of us and satisfy our needs. Often, we also expect our wants to be taken care of. For that reason, when a child’s expectation is unfulfilled, he or she may throw a tantrum. Adult relationships are not very different; the tantrums just manifest in different ways. Before exploring this, we should first understand what it means to throw a tantrum in a relationship.

A child may throw a tantrum when he feels disappointed or let down because his expectations are not met, either because he sees whatever he was seeking as something important and the adult sees it as completely meaningless, or because the child sees his wants as needs, even though they are not, or because the parent cannot understand why the child seeks what he wants, or… I think you’ve got the point! At the end of the day, it goes back to expectations. Basically, if a child wants something, such as a snack or a toy, and his parents, for whatever reason, do not agree that the child should have it, the child’s expectation of getting what he wants is left unmet. This disappointment leads to anger and, possibly, the desire to cry or scream, which creates conflict (or complication) in the relationship. In other words, expectations are what a person wants to get from the other person in the relationship.

We could also say that because relationships are based on expectations—meaning that relationships are based on getting something from someone else—we have no control over the outcome of our expectations. Then, how can we control the uncontrollable? The answer is by controlling ourselves! We cannot control others or how they act toward us, but as adults, we have the ability to set up expectations for ourselves and how we behave in our relationships.

Now, back to adult tantrums: Imagine that you expect a friend to be there for you when you need her the most, and she lets you down. You then decide not talk to her ever again, or give her the cold shoulder. That would be throwing a tantrum. But what if we expected from ourselves that when a friend is not available in our time of need, we should be able to judge her favorably, and try to think of what might have held her back, or forgive her and give her a second chance? Then the friendship might not get complicated after all.

The same can be said of a romantic relationship. For example, a husband comes home late from work, goes straight for the couch, sits down, and focuses on his phone. His wife has not spoken to him all day; she expects him to give her his immediate attention, to inquire about her day, or simply make some small talk with her. Disappointed, she just might start a fight or decide to go to sleep early to show that she is angry (even though he might be completely unaware), or give him the same treatment when he wants to talk to her. This sounds very much like a tantrum and a complication! What if the wife had an expectation for herself that when her husband walks in, without necessarily making it noticeable, she gives him 10–20 minutes to decompress, so that when he is ready and wants to talk to her, he can give her his attention? I think this approach would keep the roller coaster brakes on.

Every day we deal with relationships and the expectations that we have attached to them, and we walk through life waiting for these expectations to be met. But what if we could just flip the coin and go through everyday life establishing expectations for ourselves in all of our relationships, setting the bar for ourselves in the course of the relationship, and consequently regain control of the crazy roller coaster that relationships can be? This is definitely something to think about!

 
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Orly Bentata Goldenberg (Kelman)

is a mental health counselor in training who emphasizes the client–counselor relationship and having a thorough understanding of mental health issues across one’s lifespan. Her professional mantra is the client’s best interest, and her duty is to protect and cause no harm.

Rochel Lazar