The early days of a relationship are easy. You’re getting to know each other and everything is new and exciting and full of possibilities. That doesn’t mean that relationships necessarily get worse as you get used to each other.
Growing together as a couple creates incredibly deep emotional bonds. So how can we have the kind of strong, healthy relationship that will last? One key feature of successful long-term relationships is that both of you have clear, healthy expectations. In this article, I’ll show you how.
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We’re going to talk a lot in this article about having the right kind of relationship expectations. They need to be reasonable and achievable to be healthy. But before we dive into what expectations are reasonable for your relationship, it’s important to understand that communication is everything.
No matter how healthy or reasonable your expectations are, you’re going to run into problems in your relationship if those expectations aren’t clearly communicated. In my experience, one of the biggest problems with expectations in relationships comes when you assume that something “goes without saying.”
There are a few things that I think probably should ‘go without saying’. For example, I don’t expect (or accept) violence, gaslighting, or abuse in my relationships. I don’t think that I should have to say that, but I make sure that I do say it. Because why wouldn’t I?
There are some areas where lots of us assume that we all have the same baseline assumptions, but where there’s actually a lot of room for disagreement. For example, lots of people have different definitions of what counts as cheating in a monogamous relationship.
It’s easy to see how you can quickly get hurt if you think that your partner’s behavior counts as cheating while he thinks it’s completely fine.
Other examples of expectations that people don’t realize they need to talk about include how much time couples spend together, how quickly you need to reply to messages, and what your relationship might look like in 5 years (would you like to live together, for instance).
A good rule of thumb is that any time you think to yourself “That goes without saying,” it’s a good idea to say it anyway.
One of the things that we should all expect from our relationship is the ability to be honest about how we’re feeling and to talk about things that aren’t working for us. Talking about things that are making you unhappy can be awkward and stressful, but you need to feel able to have those conversations.
This isn’t just about being able to talk. It’s about knowing that your partner is going to be willing to listen and try to understand your perspective. If you know that bringing up a problem means that your partner is going to get angry or start to blame you, you don’t really feel able to talk about things that are going wrong.
You should also expect to be treated with kindness and respect in your relationship. When we date someone, we’re telling them that they are important to us and we’re often trying to build a life together. It’s important that that life is based on a foundation of respect.
Treating each other with respect means that you’re equal partners in your relationship. You can speak out and have your thoughts and feelings taken seriously. You give that same respect to your partner.
It’s also important to be able to expect that you are honest and open with each other. I touched on this when I talked about needing to be able to talk about problems, but honesty in a relationship should go far deeper than that.
The trust you need to feel safe and happy in a relationship comes from feeling able to expect that your partner will be honest with you. In a healthy relationship, you feel confident that your partner will keep their word and tell you the truth.
We should also feel able to expect that both people in our relationship are taking both partners’ needs into account. When you make a decision that affects your partner, they can expect that you will think about their feelings as well as your own. When they make a decision that affects you, your needs should be considered.
This doesn’t mean that you always need to put your partner’s needs first. You can sometimes see that your partner would prefer you to make one decision but you know that the other decision is much better for you. It’s ok to put yourself first sometimes, as long as your partner knows that you didn’t just ignore the effect on them.
One way that you know your partner is taking your needs into account is that they find ways to mitigate the effect of decisions or make it up to you.
For example, if your partner only has a limited number of annual leave days left, they might use those to go on holiday with their family rather than with you. They’re entitled to make that decision, but they might then plan a vacation with you as soon as possible afterward or book a weekend away together to show that they still want to spend time with you.
So far, we’ve looked at healthy expectations in your relationship, but not all expectations are reasonable to achievable. Let’s look at some common unreasonable expectations.
One of the biggest problems with having relationship expectations is when you expect something that your partner hasn’t agreed to. This is even more of a problem if it’s something that they can’t or don’t want to agree to.
Having expectations that don’t work for your partner is a recipe for disaster. They’re not going to meet your expectations, which will leave you upset and hurt. They’ll probably feel as though they’re being backed into a corner or that you’re expecting too much, which can leave them feeling angry and hurt as well.
If you have important relationship expectations that your partner doesn’t want to agree to, you might not be compatible for a relationship.
Examples of relationship expectations that your partner might not be willing to agree to include:
One of the wonderful things about a great relationship is that it can feel as though our partner understands us implicitly. That’s absolutely great, but it doesn’t mean that we can assume that they will be able to read our minds or know what we expect if we don’t tell them.
Expecting your partner to instinctively know what you want or need sets you up for disappointment. Get into the habit of being explicit about your feelings, rather than dropping hints or hoping that they notice.
Any relationship involves compromise. When we combine our life with someone else’s, there will be things that we have to give up in order to make the relationship work. If you expect to always get your own way in your relationship, it’s unlikely to turn out well.
In most cases, expecting to always get your own way in a relationship just leads the relationship to fall apart. Your partner will become frustrated and feel unimportant and disrespected and will leave. That’s probably not the outcome you were looking for.
In some other cases, your partner will let you have your own way, but that’s not actually healthy either. Your partner’s needs won’t be being met and you’re at risk of forming a codependent relationship. This isn’t going to be healthy for either of you in the long term.
When you first meet someone and get together, it can seem as if they’re absolutely perfect. That illusion usually fades pretty quickly and we learn to accept our partner for who they are; a wonderful but ultimately still slightly flawed person. We accept that they might never put their coffee mug in the dishwasher or that they eat too much garlic.
Going into a relationship expecting to change your partner isn’t healthy. It’s a sign that you don’t really respect them for who they are right now. If you’re not ok with being in a relationship with the person you’re dating as they are right now, they’re not the right person for you.
In my opinion, Disney films and romcoms have a lot to answer for. They create an illusion that great relationships don’t still have problems. This is absolutely not true. All relationships will run into some problems or challenges.
The sign of a great relationship isn’t that you don’t have any problems. It’s that you face those problems and deal with them together.
If one of your relationship expectations is that you won’t have to deal with any problems in your relationship, it’s going to be an unpleasant shock when you have your first disagreement or problem.
Even worse, you might assume that having problems means that your relationship isn’t “the one.”
You can’t meet expectations that you don’t know exist. The first step in meeting each other’s expectations is always going to be making sure that you both know what the other person is expecting.
You can take this to the next level by also being curious about why your partner wants or needs that particular expectation to be met. When you understand the experiences or reasoning behind your partner’s needs it’s easier to predict what will make them happy and what might feel wrong or uncomfortable for them.
It can be hugely tempting to put your own needs to the back of the queue. You care about your partner so you want them to be happy. That can lead you to prioritize their preferences ahead of your own. This might seem like kindness, but it usually leads to a dysfunctional relationship.
Someone who ignores their own needs and expectations quickly becomes codependent. You’ll feel frustrated and resentful that your needs aren’t being met and it’s easy to get burned out looking after your partner’s needs all of the time.
Being a martyr and not advocating for your own needs creates an unhealthy power dynamic in your relationship, leaving it unstable and usually short-lived. Instead, speak up for what you need and explain why it’s important.
Although it’s important to advocate for your own needs and expectations, that doesn’t mean that you can ignore your partner’s feelings. You’re a team and it’s vital that both of you feel respected and have your needs met.
Working out your shared expectations should be a negotiation, but you’re not competing with each other. You’re both showing the other person your hand and trying to work together to find the solution that makes both of you happy.
If you’re not sure how your partner feels about something or what their needs are, make sure that you ask them. If your partner has codependent tendencies, it can be helpful to explain to them that it’s important to you that their needs are met as well.
Explain that having their relationship expectations met isn’t selfish. It’s for the long-term health of your relationship.
Lots of us will do almost anything to meet our partner’s relationship expectations and make them happy. We’ll push ourselves to the absolute limit to look after them and avoid leaving them disappointed. Unfortunately, we’re not superheroes and this kind of effort isn’t sustainable.
It’s much healthier to be completely honest about what you can and can’t do. It’s even better to be open about how much meeting some of those needs will cost you, physically or emotionally.
For example, I’m not someone who’s constantly on my phone. I actually hate messaging. In the past, I’ve dated people whose relationship expectations included sending each other lots and lots of texts per day and I tried to fulfill that expectation. I really did. But it made me really stressed and unhappy.
It would have been far better if I’d just been up-front about the fact that having text conversations every day doesn’t work for me. I got so hung up on the fact that I could meet their expectation that I forgot that I didn’t have to do it.
Lots of people expect their partner to meet all of their needs, especially in terms of emotional support. That’s not always going to be possible. Create healthy expectations by seeing your partner as just one source of support and discussing who else you can turn to.
This might mean having lists of friends you can turn to for additional support, or people who share some of the things you like to do. For example, if you hate musicals but your partner loves them and doesn’t want to go alone, it’s useful to have a list of people they can go with instead.
No relationship is completely perfect and there will always be some things that we would love to have but that simply aren’t possible with the person we’ve chosen. Maybe your partner is less practical than you’d like, or they don’t share some interests that you’d love to try together.
That’s ok. Some of your relationship expectations will be essential and others will be ‘nice to have’. As long as all of your essential needs and expectations are fulfilled, it’s healthy to compromise on the rest.
Talking about your needs and expectations in your relationship isn’t something you do once and never mention again. You’re both going to grow and change as your relationship develops. Your needs and feelings will also often change as your relationship deepens.
Don’t hold your partner (or yourself) rigidly to what you agreed in terms of relationship expectations in the early days of your relationship. Be open to talking about your needs regularly and even checking in on the health of the relationship overall.
If you’ve been disappointed by a partner before, it can be tempting to try to lower your expectations. It feels as though that should make it more likely that your needs are met and you’re less likely to get hurt.
Unfortunately, even when we tell ourselves that we have low expectations, we still get disappointed or feel let down. Sometimes, it can be even worse to be let down because you feel as though you’re asking for so very little.
Pushing yourself to lower your expectations isn’t entirely honest. Rather than talking about the relationship you want, you’re talking about the bare minimum that you’ll tolerate. This isn’t setting you or your relationship up for success.
I spent several years as a circus performer and one thing I learned from that is that, no matter how well you plan, something will always go wrong. Always. Relationships are much the same. You can talk and plan all you like but there will still be at least some problems that you didn’t see coming.
You can’t avoid the problems, but you can give yourselves a headstart in dealing with them by talking about how you want to work on problems together. Having a set of shared expectations around how you deal with difficulties and conflict can make a huge difference.
Realizing that your plan to resolve problems in your relationship works is a fantastic feeling. It can actually leave your relationship feeling stronger than if the problem hadn’t come up at all.
Setting healthy expectations for your relationship starts with understanding yourself, your needs, and your beliefs. Think about what you want and need from your relationship and then talk to your partner about those to see what feels realistic and achievable for you as a couple.
There’s no way to guarantee that your partner will meet your relationship expectations, but you can make it more likely. Be really open and honest about your initial expectations. They can’t meet expectations they don’t know about. You might also need to compromise where you don’t agree.
You can’t force your partner to change their expectations for a relationship. Instead, you should focus on being open and honest about what expectations you can meet and where the problems are. If you can’t find a middle ground, the relationship might not be right for you.
Having healthy expectations for your relationship and communicating them well to your partner, is a great step toward having an incredible relationship that lasts.
How does this fit with your experiences? Let me know your most important relationship expectations in the comments and remember to share this article if you found it helpful.