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Family and Consumer Sciences

College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources

LIFE - Individual Growth and Development

Every relationship comes with expectations

Commitment to any task comes with expectations about it: hopes for yourself, others, and outcomes of working together. Marriage and couples relationships are no different: in every relationship, we hold certain hopes about…

Ourselves: "I do my share…show I care…am not stubborn…"
(If our self-image doesn’t match our partner’s view, there’s trouble ahead!)

A partner: "I thought you’d stay slim, sacrificing, and easy-going."
(If expectations are static, self-centered, or unrealistic, conflicts will come)

The relationship: "It’s not fair to ask for this commitment if we’re just living together." (We all have ideas about what certain arrangements will be like)

A shared future: "I thought once we married, we’d always be happy."
(These assumptions affect the present and future)

Where expectations come from

Through our growing-up years, we learn attitudes and beliefs about partnerships and marriage. Most influences are unintentional (role modeled/observed, interpreted ‘between the lines’ from comments or conversations overheard), while others are explained (i.e., why budgeting is important and how to do it) or legally required (i.e., you can only be legally married to one person at a time). Much of what we learn about marriage or relationships in general comes from:

  • Family of origin (parent/grandparent models, attitudes among relatives, siblings)
  • Society (friends, neighborhood, school or church, TV/media)
  • Personal experiences and preferences (hurts, happenings, and hopes)
Expectations aren’t all bad

Some of the examples above illustrate the "down-side" of disappointed expectations. "Expecting the best" may guide and inspire couples to work toward an ideal, rather than settling for whatever happens…or cynically believing there’s no hope. The less you expect…the less you’re likely to get…the less you expect.

Think about it:

If couples discussed all their expectations for all areas of their relationship before they decided to date or marry, they’d never break up (they’d still be talking after they retired, and negotiations would put the relationship permanently on hold!)

Types of Expectations

Attitudes and assumptions which flow from observations and experiences and shape the course of relationships include:

  • Practical concerns: household roles, money and credit, sex, leisure, faith, friendships, in-law relationships, parenting, communication and conflict resolution, as they translate into everyday concerns:
    "We went hiking like you wanted last weekend. Can’t we go to a concert like I want this weekend?"
    (how we spend our time)
  • Relationship issues: individual identity/freedom, stability/change, closeness/distance, leadership/follwership, intential goals/spontaneity:
    "Why do we always have to plan our free time? Can’t we just be spontaneous?"
  • Deep needs/beliefs: affection, belongingness, control; personal growth and healing; principles, morals, ethics:
    "It’s only fair that we should equally decide how to spend leisure time.
All levels of expectations are related to each other and to each partner’s commitment. However, disappointments at the practical level can easily be over-blown as relationship or basic needs conflicts. Hurts or rigid beliefs at a deep level can produce exaggerated demands for agreement or perfect behavior over practical and relationship issues. Consensus on important expectations at each level, with a willingness to work through differences is critical to creating "workable" expectations.


Take a minute to list three expectations each for yourself, your partner, your relationship, and your future. Review your own ideas as if your partner had written them (are they realistic? Selfish?), then exchange ideas with your partner and discuss what they mean, where they came from, and why they are important. Try this for each practical issue.

Describe the behaviors which meet your deep needs for affection, belongingness, and control (influence, not domination!). Then for a week or two, make a conscious (and creative) effort to practice behaviors with each other which meet these deep needs. Scheduled "acts of kindness" ("coming home" greetings, for instance) as well as spontaneous good will are O.K.

Developed by Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service Family Life Specialist

Expectations: Coming to consensus

Most of us being partnerships with general assumptions about the kind of person we like, what activities fit our interests or values, and how we expect to be treated. Maybe those assumptions are fantasy, maybe they are based on caring, honest, long-term relationships. Most of the time, so long as we feel good and are getting along, we don’t stop to think or talk about what we expect. Unfortunately, when we’re surprised or hurt by unmet expectations, we’re in no mood to talk. Relationships which survive and grow begin the expectations talk early and use differences as ways to better understand and cooperate.

Lest we expect more of a partner than is warranted, it pays to remember that…

Expectations are mostly unstated

Some assumptions we could easily describe:

"He should be tall, dark, and handsome…she should not talk too much…"
(but most of what we expect goes unstated…even unconscious)

Most expectations we take for granted because they are familiar or convenient:

His not thinking about doing dishes because his father never did them

Avoiding jobs like balancing the checkbook or cleaning the toilet because
they are unpleasant (and if your partner does them, you don’t have to think
about it)

Some we discover and adjust as we grow together:

"At first I thought that watching kids was the wife’s job…Now I enjoy it as
much as she does." (Change in expectations marks maturation)

Expectations are powerful

Since expectations are tied to feelings and experiences as well as ideas

…rewards can be pretty high when expectations are fulfilled and

…disappointment pretty intense when expectations are not met

To build on the positives and learn from disappointments

expect each other to work at the partnership

…and be flexible in

Healthy Expectations

Expectations which are realistic and shared help individuals and partnerships grow.

Realistic Expectations: Each individual and couple has their own idea of what is reasonable (and that changes over time), but overall two factors are important:

  • Appropriate—respectful, fair, compassionate, fitting for the age of the partners and stage of their relationship
    • Playful teasing may be O.K.; personal insults or continued teasing when a partner asks you to quit does not show respect. 
    • Each partner taking all the cooking or yard work to match interests or talents, contributing equally overall is O.K.; One person doing (or directing) every task while the other plays lazy or helpless does not show fairness.
    • Insisting on a lifestyle far beyond income is never realistic; living more modestly in order to save or invest prudently for the future probably is.
  • Flexible—openness, patience, and imagination in discussing and fulfilling expectations promotes growth, rigidness fosters conflict
    • Willingness to hear new ideas, accept the person even when disagreeing with an idea or behavior, appreciate effort without expecting perfection creates a climate of trust and cooperation
    • Ability to brainstorm, see humor, or creatively reduce tension helps partners work together to meet inevitable challenges
  • Accountable—effort in fulfilling promises and showing respect and flexibility should be matched with honesty and integrity in asking a partner to fulfill agreements he/she has made to you
    • Patience may be a virtue, but always waiting longer, doing something for a partner, apologizing, or giving up your dream doesn’t build partnership
Shared Expectations: Communicating what is desired and building consensus on expectations is most likely to happen with:
  • Planning ahead—discussing issues in a relaxed, non-stressed climate allows partners to work out differences and set common goals.
  • Conflict resolution—using structured rules such as turn-taking, paraphrasing, time out, compromise, and consensus-building, couples can find common ground and reach higher levels of trust and cooperation
Expectations and Investments: High aspirations precede higher rewards and greater rewards lead to greater investments. What’s the pattern in your relationships?


Using experiences/remembrances in the families in which you grew up, discuss:

  • Expectations of men and women (power, partnership, communication, work and household responsibilities)
Explore what you learned, how that influences feelings/views of self and partner, what you need to do similarly/differently. Experiment with new tasks or learn how to do a shared task together (painting the house, installing computer software) and reflect on how flexibility in skills reduces stress and increases abilities of both partners. If necessary use "chore" lists and "encouragement" notes to help change to new habits.

Try the same discussion for other practical issues (parenting, money, sex)

Expectations: Staying Optimistic

When expectations remain unmet and extra efforts drain energy and enthusiasm, partners may be tempted to give up, blame each other, or become pessimistic about their future. Attitudes and performance are constantly changing—often unintentionally through stress or circumstances—so expectations constantly need readjusting. Moment-by-moment and month-by-month adjustments which "expect the best" give relationship a better chance of success than "expecting the worst."

The way persons think about experiences really can influence their ability to influence relationships for the good. Key factors in staying optimistic are:

  • Permanence: Take heart in the good and let go of the bad
    • When expectations are met, credit your partner with good faith and capability

-"Thanks for picking up the milk—you’re so reliable." (vs. "Well, you remembered for once.")

    • If hopes are disappointed, see it as temporary or changeable

-"Oh, oh. Looks like our bank account is down this month." (vs. "Why are you overspending again." [This also avoids the embarrassment of discovering that it was your purchase that put the budget in the red.])

  • Pervasiveness: Build on the good and don’t let bad things snowball
    • When expectations are met, use the momentum to change for the good

-"I appreciate your talking that out—now we know what time each of us needs." (vs. "We are getting better at hanging in there in spite of the stress.")

    • If hopes are disappointed, leave room for another chance

-"I know this is upsetting. Maybe we should calm down, think it over, and make a

time to talk it out when we’re more relaxed." (vs. "Why bother with this again—you always blow up.")

  • Personalization
    • When expectations are met, credit yourself and your partner

-"I like to give you sweet surprises and I think I’m pretty good at it." (vs. "Well, I finally found something that makes you happy.")

    • If hopes are disappointed, leave room for another chance

-"Can I try to explain it again?." (vs. "You never care what I think.")

Developed by Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service Family Life Specialist

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