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Tiny Wisdom: What Unmet Expectations Mean

“Anger always comes from frustrated expectations.” -Elliott Larson

Before I left for my two-week holiday family visit, I asked my boyfriend to wash our sheets before I returned. I hoped to come home to a clean, organized apartment, with everything as I left it. That is not, however, how things panned out. Instead, I came home to a somewhat disorganized space and a pile of dirty towels—along with an empty refrigerator.

My boyfriend told me he’d been busy, and he didn’t have time to do all the laundry or go food shopping. I translated “I didn’t have time” to mean “I assumed you’d do it when you got back.”

At first, I felt annoyed. I thought, “I wouldn’t leave laundry for you,” “I would have bought at least some staples in case you were hungry,” and a few other righteous gripes about his domestic shortcomings.

I was going to let him know it’s not okay to take me for granted, but then I realized something: I was assuming his actions meant that, when they may, in fact, have only meant exactly what he said—that he got backed up and didn’t have time.

So instead of expressing my dissatisfaction with the expectations he didn’t meet, I expressed exactly what I felt: “When you say you don’t have time to do things around the house, I sometimes assume you expect that I will do them.”

He responded, “I don’t expect that at all. I expected I would do them later tonight. I know you’re busy too.”

This right here, I suspect, is the cause of most conflict in relationships: one person does something or doesn’t do something, and the other makes assumptions about what it means.

I have done it many times before—assumed the worst in someone I love because they didn’t do what I would do. But this rationale fails to consider that other people have different ways of doing things, and they have no idea what meanings we’ll assign when they choose to do things their way.

They also can’t know precisely what we expect unless we express it. I asked my boyfriend to wash the sheets, and he did. But more importantly, he’s a thoughtful, considerate person on the whole, and this one incident was not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

We have a right to communicate when we feel hurt or offended, but maybe love is learning to be hurt and offended less often. The people we care about are generally doing their best—love is recognizing that instead of assuming the worst.

*I added this to the comments, and I decided to add it here: For anyone reading this who feels an overall sense of over-compromising–and as a result sacrificing their needs and losing touch with their values–please know this post is not for you.  This post is for anyone who, like me, is in a happy, healthy relationship, romantic or otherwise, but gets annoyed by little unmet expectations here and there. 

Photo by torbakhopper

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About Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha Founder Lori Deschene is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series (which includes one free eBook) & co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an eCourse that helps you get unstuck & change your life. She's now seeking stories to include in her next book, 365 Tiny Love Challenges by Tiny Buddha. Click here to share your story! For inspiring posts and wisdom quotes, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter & Facebook.

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  • reinventing64

    *phew*

    What a minefield this topic is for me. After 14 years of rising above, overlooking, forgiving and stretching
    forbearance past breaking, I wish I’d paid as much attention to what I
    needed in a relationship as I have to what I could give.

    It is very mature to rise above the disappointment you felt when you came home to disorder, especially when you were clear what you expected before you left. Letting other people be who they are and not expecting them to do things as we do is loving, tolerant and kind.

    At the same time, keeping agreements, not letting oneself get too busy to be responsive to a simple request from one’s partner is loving, generous and kind.

    You were gone 2 weeks. It was easy enough to plan time to handle a couple of simple tasks. It’s called setting priorities. Moreover, whether you’re home or away, why is disorder an acceptable standard for your boyfriend to live – for himself?

    Venus. Mars. Tidy woman. Messy boy. He may have many wonderful qualities that make over-looking this kind of thing easy. But be careful you don’t put yourself in the role of “mother,” which is to say martyr.

    Reasons are not excuses.

    And while we can feel good about rising above our differences with others and our growth as a human being, the push me-pull you of radically different values and standards for self respect in one’s nest gets old.

    With that, I butt out.

    *smooches*

    Pam

  • Lv2terp

    This is wonderful, and think it applies beyond relationships for sure…even with strangers! This has been something I have been working on personally (lessening my expectations, and to stop assu,ing others thoughts and processe are the same as mine). This article summarizes clearly this common issue…nicely done!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Pam!

    I understand your perspective here. I wouldn’t want to be in the role of mother, as that can really throw off the relationship dynamic!

    That being said, our apartment wasn’t a complete mess–it was just below my standards, and I happen to be a bit of a neat freak. I am someone who likes everything in its place, and my boyfriend is someone who grew up in a much less rigid environment. 

    The lesson for me was to realize he did not do anything wrong. He also went home for a few days for the holidays, and his job has been really demanding lately. Yet he still made time to do the one thing I asked him to do. I *could* harp on all the other things I thought I should have done–and I considered doing that–or could I cut him slack because I love him. I know which one he would have done for me. Ultimately, I chose the latter.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. =)
    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Pam,

    I forgot to address the first part of your comment. (I was so busy feeling defensive for my boyfriend who I suddenly felt I threw under the bus!)

    I didn’t mean to suggest that we should ever overlook what we need. I could tell from what you wrote that it wasn’t the right choice for you, and I think it’s wonderful you were able to learn that lesson for yourself. For anyone reading this who feels an overall sense of over-compromising–and as a result sacrificing their needs and losing touch with their values–please know this post is not for you. 

    This post is for anyone who, like me, is in a happy, healthy relationship but gets annoyed by little unmet expectations here and there. There is a big difference between the two situations, and I admit that this is not good advice for someone who is an unsatisfying or unhealthy relationship.

    Much love,
    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much! I think you’re right–this idea can help us create peaceful encounters with anyone we meet!

  • http://vhanna26.typepad.com Vera

    I get so angry at my husband when he doesn’t react to things the way I would.  This is something I need to grow on.

  • frustrated expectations

    If you’re oscar & felix as  a couple, and I were the oscar I’d secretly be looking fwd to NOT having to be neat for a couple of weeks…not as a dis to you but as a way to relax. it is tough living w/ another’s habits even when we love the other person. 
    a friend once told me she was a lot happier once she quit imagining all the nice things her boyfriend (now husband of 25 yrs) COULD have done for her (her bday, holidays, day to day etc).  In other words: 

    “Anger always comes from frustrated expectations.” -Elliott Larson
    One of the most annoying things my husband does is say, “Do me a favor and xyz” It just pisses me off because he is basically very very very lazy around the house so any “favor” he’s asking is no favor to him (how condescending) on top of me being the only one who does all laundry/cleaning EXCEPT for the kitchen which he tidies obsessively (except after dinner when I clean it) driving me and my daughter crazy (putting lunch/breakfast ingredients away before we’re done. putting a pan that we plan to use again in soapy water so i have to wash it before i can use it again etc.)

    so i live w/ rolled into one man a felix/oscar who thinks he does way more work than he actually does and I hate it and it has developed into an extremely unhealthy dynamic. (or as Harry said, “The worst kind: you think you’re low maintenance, but you’re actually high maintenance)”
    I think your mistake was asking him to clean up for you in the first place instead of saying: “enjoy your 2 week vacation w/out having to endure my neat freak habits!” 

    A wise person also once said, It only matters if someone cares. Him not caring about stocking fridge is not a dis to you, it means HE didn’t care if he ate out while you were gone!  If you can’t live w/ his (normal to me) mindset, watch out when you have kids and the work load increases 100-fold … the whole contract has to be renegotiated. 
    We were on verge of divorce b/c he wasn’t pulling his weight at home so (at his behest “quit your stupid job”)  I quit my job instead of getting divorced (literally that was the choice I gave myself to give it one last try.) The new labor division of me staying home w/ kids kept our marriage together but still seemed unfair (less so tho) because it really is hard to live with someone who expects you to clean every room in house (except sometimes the kitchen) and refuses to even acknowledge how much work that is. It has destroyed the love/respect we used to have and now that I’ve gone back to work part-time and have even less time to clean I find myself even angrier but we have 2 kids (one disabled) to parent. I would be so much happier alone & have offered divorce but it appears he doesn’t want to lose his “housekeeper/caregiver”… why I didn’t foresee all this, I don’t know. I know I’ve painted a depressing picture, but do imagine that the habits you see now will not change…can you live with that? even once you add poopy diapers/changing sheets at midnight w/ sick child while he just rolls over and goes back to sleep? … If he makes a good living, maybe you can afford a maid in your future?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I think this comment was intended for me…(it was in response to Pam). I think you hit the nail on the head–that my boyfriend enjoys the break from being neat. And you’re also right that he didn’t care about having a fully stocked fridge. 

    I think this is such a great conversation to have, because when two people come together there are always going to be things they do differently–and quirks that we’re tempted to force on the other person. I’m aware that my Type-A personality can be a little domineering, and also that my way isn’t necessarily the right way. It’s just the way I’m accustomed to doing things. I also think that neither way is normal, per se–there is just what’s normal for me and what’s normal for him. I think that recognizing that is they to our mutual respect.

    I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles in your marriage. I can only imagine how frustrating it’s been to be in a marriage that feels unbalanced–and also to have given up your job only to feel like the housekeeper. 

    I can’t predict the future, of course, but I don’t anticipate my boyfriend would leave all child care tasks to me, particularly if our child was sick. He is actually a highly thoughtful, considerate person who goes above and beyond to make sure my needs are met. This has made it even more apparent when I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, because I remember how much the good things outweigh the minor irritations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/SunSpots-Tom-Rohe/1406619242 SunSpots Tom Rohe

    As always, itty bitty buddha, the wisdom is spot on. Such a good point to lose the expectations, but I think your best point was TALKING bout how you felt with your BF. Expressing it without anger and being clear about you felt allowed real, honest dialog to occur. No harm, no foul and you both understood each other better. Go lil buddha go!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Lori!! I always enjoy your posts, thank yu so much for sharing!
    I think it is dificult to get rid of expectations… we are constantly waiting and expecting for something to happen, expecting someone to do things for us. It´s a real challenge to me to no have expectations..

    Happy new year! I wish you the best and also to tiny buddha, I read this blog everyday! :)
    big hug and Love

    Tatiana

  • Tammy Winand

    I’m not in a commited relationship but the advice in this post applies with ALL relationships inc family & friendships…
    It’s taken me a long time to realize that the things which hurt me are prob not intended to do so, but are (as you said) rather the result of different ways of thinking, acting & even interpreting the world!

    I find it hard to balance what needs addressing and what we just have to surrender to as a result of our differences!

  • Irbivorgirl

    Be appreciative that you have a relationship.

  • erica

    right on point. i’ve been coming to this realization throughout the yr and you’ve put it down for me. thank you!

  • Janet Pal

    Thanks for the reminder, Lori! I’m learning, ever so slowly, that life – and love – do tend to flow more easily when I assume that others are trying their best, just as I am :)

  • Dalai Lina

    I really appreciate all of the thoughtful replies.  This general topic has always toyed with me.  I can see both sides.  I always strive to react to circumstances with neutrality:  the dishes still didn’t get done, whether I feel frustrated or neutral.  I am the one being effected by my anger.  That doesn’t mean I have to do the dishes, though…

    Even Byon Katie (master of being neutral!)  says that while we should try to approach things with an open mind, it doesn’t mean we have to keep our mouths shut.  So, when your boyfriend doesn’t hold up his end of the deal, being a “buddha” doesn’t mean ignoring it and cleaning the house yourself.  It means expressing your feelings honestly and asking for what you want (which you did!).  If the person repeatedly doesn’t follow through, then it is time to make a big decision:  can you accept it with joy in your heart or is it time to move on?  

    I definitely do most of the tasks around the house, and sometimes it pisses me off!  But I see these as opportunities to work on myself.  Alway something to work on :)

  • Rio

    Your added comment at the end was what settled my “but what about…” thoughts after finishing your article. There are times when your constant doubts of the other person are actually trying to signal a real problem with your relationship that goes beyond just giving that person the benefit of a doubt. I was in one of those relationships and no matter how many allowances we tried to give each other, there was definitely something not right about our chemistry. Thanks for a great article!

  • Cindyzamo

    I’ve been married 15 years and in that time my husband would often forget or get too busy to finish what I asked for help with. The past year I just stopped complaining about what he didn’t do and started thanking him for what he did do and to my surprise he does so much more without being asked. We are both much happier not making a big deal about small things.

  • Cindyzamo

    I’ve been married 15 years and in that time my husband would often forget or get too busy to finish what I asked for help with. The past year I just stopped complaining about what he didn’t do and started thanking him for what he did do and to my surprise he does so much more without being asked. We are both much happier not making a big deal about small things.

  • frustrated expectations

    Re ” I was in one of those relationships and no matter how many allowances we tried to give each other, there was definitely something not right about our chemistry.”  It is really hard to see in real time when we’re just trying too hard at something that wasn’t meant to be (due to biological clock, tiredness of starting over in new relationships, etc) vs. “no body’s perfect … including me!” 
    After infatuation stage is over you have to ask yourself, is it true love or what someone once called “a happy coincidence of needs” that you meet for each other? Would you truly love/admire him in sickness/health/richer/poorer?  or–more to this discussion– if he refuses to pick up a toilet brush–ever? Spends more time with the tv/computer than in conversation with you? I thought I could live w/ that–after all, if you live alone you clean all toilets and there’s no one to converse with…but I seriously underestimated how resentment grows after years of allowances grow into true resentment. I wish I had ended it and let him have a chance for love w/ someone who loves him enough not to care about his laziness or the fact that he doesn’t care about my emotional needs. In hindsight, I rationalized way too much just because I wanted kids before it was too late.

  • frustrated expectations

     I used to feel that way too… but weighing loneliness alone or loneliness with someone who you have to cleanup after who you feel is using you who berates you for being ungrateful (for income he provides), I’d rather be alone and free to do as I choose, not have to answer to him…which I guess is one reason divorce rate is as high as it is.  (and of course I beat myself up for not being more grateful for all I have/roof overhead/etc, but something shifted in me about a year ago and it’s I can’t talk myself into gratitude anymore … divorce could well be worse–esp for our kids– but that doesn’t make today any better for me.)

  • frustrated expectations

    that is good advice. I TRY not to complain but then after a day of him lying on the bed w/ his iphone &/or in recliner w/ crossword/newspaper &/or watching tv or on computer while I do all the housework– if not today –at some point I just get pissed off…and now I wonder, did I forget to say thanks to him for going to the grocery store (which is actually how we spent this holiday)? I probably did.  thanks for the reminder. 

  • Susantofmt23

    I had this problem in my marriage and drove my husband away with constant complaining which I now realize, too late, was a mistake.

  • Military Life

    I really enjoyed this topic! I liked reading all the responses even more! I just felt the world lift off my shoulders in knowing that I am not alone in my struggle with feeling taken advantage of in house duties.

    I have been married only 4 short years but I am a naval officers wife, have 5 horses in my back yard, an 18 month old and am a student at a university. My husband deployed for the first time during our marriage as soon as we dropped ship in a new location. A location that was 3,000 miles away from any friends or family. Try not only cleaning a 3,000 + sf home on your own but tending to 5 horses, 3 dogs, 2 cats, 2 ferrets, a toddler and mowing/tending to 7 acres alone! Resentment is the understatement of the year! I would have paid my husband to trade places with me so I could go fly jets off a carrier on no real missions and forget my responsibilities of real life at home. Oh, did I forget to mention my daughter (16 months old at the time) and I were physically assaulted on our property by the nanny we had for less than a month, then I had to try and put the pieces back together by myself… My life this past year has been a real testament to my true strength. When my husband finally came home in mid December, I had learned to take care of every thing on my own and although I was grateful for the help, he didn’t do things correctly or flat out got in my way.

    I agree that my way is not the only way but I do believe in working smarter not harder. My husband’s lack of common sense amazes me, especially seeing that he is very educated and both his parents are doctors (one is a physicist). With a farm full of animals, you have to be smart about things and sometimes my anger and frustration gets the better of me.

    I have been trying to practice patience and reading this article was such an eye opener for me. My husband is a wonderful man and a great father. I need to just stop and remember, he is trying the best that he can. He is not an overly organized, anal retentive, clean freak that only does things one way and if the routine is mixed up, death might Immediatly follow… Like I am :) If I could copy/paste this article to my head, I would! Thank you for this article!

  • Boo

    I really love this post Lori, I sometimes tend to assume the worse in people, without really knowing the whole story — I will try to be more intuitive and think to myself there are two sides to every story —

  • Lubabradford

    Clean sheets and tidy house, plus food in the fridge isn’t too much to expect from one’s partner.  It’s being respectful and considerate and honouring the relationship.  “Being busy” means integrating household chores into the the day.  I hope there was fresh milk and bread, at least in the fridge.  BTW, I’m curious to know who cooked dinner that night?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    He actually always cooks dinner. In the context of our relationship, I really do believe this was one of those incidents where giving him the benefit of the doubt was the right thing to do, particularly because he does a lot that I appreciate, and I know he’s been busy with work. Also, I kind of love that guy =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Yes, I think you’re right Tammy! It’s not always easy to find a balance, but I know it’s the best thing for peaceful, loving relationships!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s wonderful! I think people naturally want to do more when they feel appreciated.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Tom! That felt like a big insight for me, as well–recognizing that I could communicate how I felt clearly, and in doing so start a constructive conversation, as opposed to just placing blame.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m glad this post was helpful to you Boo!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome. I am so sorry to learn about what happened with your nanny. It sounds like it was a challenging year–but how wonderful that you’ve found strength and that you’ve been there for your daughter!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I’ve been in my fair share of those relationships, and many times I ignored my instincts. I’m glad to hear you’re not in one of those any more! I liken it to trying to squish a square peg into a round hole. It’s painful and it just doesn’t work.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I know what you mean Tatiana. I don’t know if it’s possible not to have any expectations, and to some extent that’s a good thing. We need to expect certain things in relationships (for example, that the other person won’t intentionally hurt us). It can be challenging sometimes to recognize which expectations are the necessary/positive ones, and which are just sweating the small stuff. It’s something I’m always working at!

    Happy New Year and big hug right back =)
    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome Janet. =)

  • Tinarose29

    I’m so glad you clarified who this post was for beacuse I am in a situation where I am comprimising me for peace. I feel I cannot speak up when I see something is not right because I know it will be taken the wrong way and could end up very ugly. Yesterday i had to vent out my frustrations and did feel better but guilty at the same time. I hope and pray that this year I am able to be fully me because I know I have alot to offer firstly to myself then to the world.
    Namaste

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I hope so too Tina! There’s nothing worse than feeling like you can’t communicate what’s on your mind, and fearing that if you do it won’t be well received. I really think that communication is everything in relationships.

  • http://twitter.com/CaseyCamilleri Casey Camilleri

    I have to remind myself of this all the time.  Great post!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Casey. I’m glad it helped! =)

  • http://lifeisnotamovie.net Robin

    Thank you for this, given some stuff going on in my life right now this is very helpful.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!