The one thing that shatters relationships and ruins friendships more than any other is expectations. When we say that someone is not meeting our ‘needs’, we usually mean that he is not living up to our expectations. True needs are very few, but expectations are limitless.
When a person’s behaviour does not match your expectations, you can try to change their behaviour, or you could let go of your expectations. The first is an exercise in frustration and causes untold damage to relationships. The second is also difficult, but possible and worthwhile. Learn to let go.
1. Identify faulty assumptions
For some reason, when we get close to a person, we start to demand that this person acts in a certain way. We reason that “if you loved me, you would…” This type of reasoning is based on two faulty assumptions:
a. That love can be defined in a certain way
b. That the other person agrees with this definition
Neither assumption is reasonable, and once you accept that your way of thinking is not the only right way, you’ll find it easy to reject the assumption and therefore adjust or even completely drop your expectations.
2. Seek to understand
People show love in different ways, as explained by Gary Chapman in his excellent book “The Five Love Languages”: words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, gifts, and physical touch. Someone else may speak a love language that you do not understand because your love language is different.
When you travel to another country that speaks a different language from yours, the locals may not understand what you are trying to say to them. In the same way, when someone tries to love you in their own way, it is you who may not understand. This does not mean that they are not trying. It is not their actions that you need to change, it is your understanding.
3. Observe carefully
When you stop expecting a certain behaviour from others, you free yourself to see more clearly. You will start to observe what they actually do, instead of constantly seeing the gap between what they do and what you want them to do.
For example, if you expect your child to obey your instructions quietly and he starts to question you, you may get upset because he doesn’t meet your expectation of what a ‘good boy’ is. If you drop this expectation and listen to his questions instead, you may pick up on a specific fear he has which is causing him to resist your instruction. When you see more clearly, you can respond more effectively.
4. Recognise the consequences
You would probably be upset if somebody loved you only when you behaved a certain way. Children who grow up with this kind of conditional love become insecure adults who try too hard to please. Spouses who feel they are not good enough for their partners may seek acceptance in somebody else’s arms.
Relationships are not transactions. If you’re in a relationship because of what you get out of it, it is a transaction. We all have needs that have to met, but it is futile to expect the other person to meet these needs. It is easy to let go of expectations once we accept responsibility to meet our needs ourselves, and are in a relationship not for what we can get but for who we can be.
5. Ask for agreement
If an expectation you have is important because it touches on non-negotiable values or morality, seek to convert that expectation into an agreement. Agreements are not expectations. Expectations exist in your own mind, often without the knowledge of the other person. Agreements are explicit verbal commitments by both parties on a set of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.
Decide on what is non-negotiable to you. Highlight these to the other person and explain why it is so important. I’ve found that calm discussions work much better in this case than yelling matches. Be very specific about the behaviours you expect and ask if the other party agrees. Be prepared to return the favour. Once both have agreed, honour the groundrules.
If you cannot convert a non-negotiable expectation to an agreement, you’ll have to make a tough choice. You have to decide whether to let go of the expectation or the person. Personally I think that a flesh-and-blood person is almost always more worth holding on to than an expectation that exists only in my mind.
Let go of your expectations. I’m still working on this myself, but the few times I have managed to let go have been truly liberating. With one simple change of thinking, you free two people at one time. The other person is free from having to behave in a certain way, and you are free to love better. Letting go is hard, but definitely worth it.
This is Part 1 of the 4-part Managing Expectations series: