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How Expectations Undermine Our Relationships and Happiness

Unhappy Couple

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” ~Bruce Lee

A few years ago, my husband was away from me for a few weeks, working in another town. It was summer, and we were living close to the beach at the time, so I often spent my Saturday nights walking along the ocean at sunset, enjoying the colors and sounds.

One Saturday night I was in a simply glorious mood. The beach was filled with happy families and couples, the Atlantic was a particularly lovely shade of aquamarine, and life felt just about perfect.

When I got back to my car I looked at my cell phone and saw that I had missed a call from my husband. I called him back and quickly realized his mood was not nearly as buoyant as my own: He wasn’t particularly chatty, and seemed pretty negative about the work he was doing.

I took this extremely personally and turned cold and quiet almost immediately, eventually taking the very juvenile step of hanging up on him. How dare he ruin my perfect summer evening!?

About ten minutes later, in the parking lot of a grocery store, I had a huge epiphany: He hadn’t ruined anything. It was all me, as my negative feelings were entirely created by my expectations of how he should have behaved.

I had been anticipating that he would be in the same great mood I was, and when he wasn’t, I took it personally. I became upset that he wasn’t acting as I expected. I became angry because he wasn’t meeting the standards I had set.

In other words, I was completely responsible for my deflated mood.

This was the very first time I realized how having expectations of how other people should act was causing unnecessary pain and suffering in my life. Once I started looking around, though, I saw many other examples.

For instance, I once had the expectation that a new acquaintance would quickly respond to my text and agree that she, too, had a nice time hanging out with me.

When she didn’t, I ended up spending more than twenty-four hours wondering if she liked me, feeling pretty bad about myself. (She did eventually respond with a very nice text; she’s just a busy person who doesn’t respond to texts immediately!)

I expected an automatic response, and not getting one undermined my happiness.

Another example is the time I was seventeen and gave my dad a Father’s Day card I thought he’d find really funny, and he barely even responded to it at all.

I had built up a vision of him having a really warm and amused reception to this card, and when there was almost zero reaction, I was crushed. Again, my expectations, and the beliefs about what it meant if they weren’t met, were causing pain.

Before you think that I’m suggesting you lower your expectations of other people and never, ask anything of anyone, let me clarify a bit.

Telling a friend about a tough situation at home and expecting you’ll get some words of wisdom is wonderful. Hoping the guy whose eye you’ve been trying to catch will smile at you today can be fun and rewarding.

Hoping for the outcome you desire is one thing, trying to force it and being overrun with negative thoughts and feelings when it doesn’t work out is another.

You can’t control the way people think, feel, or react. Ever. You may try to, you may want to, but ultimately, how they act is up to them.

And when you base your feelings of happiness, worth, or confidence on the actions or reactions of other people, you’re setting yourself up for many moments (or days or even years) of avoidable misery.

There are a few ways to keep hoping for positive interactions with other people, but not get sucked down into the mud and muck when they don’t go as you expect.

1. Stop expecting other people to act exactly as you would like them to—it’s a game you’re guaranteed to lose. Instead, try being open to any and all reactions from others.

If, on that gorgeous night back in 2012, I had opened my mind and heart to my husband with no preconceived notions of what his mood should be, my evening could have remained joyful and I may have even improved his evening, too.

Back when I was seventeen, if I had realized that my dad’s lack of reaction had nothing to do with me, but was about his own problems with expressing emotions, I would have felt far less hurt. I couldn’t make him react the way I wanted, and assuming he would do what would make me happy led to a sad experience for me.

2. Start building up your own happiness and confidence on something you do have power over: your thoughts and beliefs.

When someone does the unexpected and it disappoints you, it’s always because you had a belief about what they were supposed to do.

You believe that your mother should have been proud when you won the essay contest, and when she wasn’t, you were sad. If, on the other hand, you lean in to the truth that your mother can react however she wants to, but still believe you are a wonderful writer anyway, your pain won’t be so great.

You believe your son should have gotten better grades, but when he brings home a poor report card, you feel angry and guilty. When you stop believing that your son’s grades are a reflection on you as a parent, and start believing that you’re doing the best you can and letting go of guilt, you suffer less.

3. Stay in the moment as often as you can.

Stay present with your thoughts, and see if you’re holding onto expectations of how other people should behave.

It’s when you slip out of being in the now that you are truly disappointed. When this happens, you’re letting your thoughts and stories about what the other person should have done, or what will happen now because of this perceived slight, or why you deserve to be angry, take you out of the now and down a path that is full of rejection and fear.

The bottom line is that you will not find peace if you’re always expecting other people to give it to you with their actions or words or even love. The only way to find it is to drop your expectations of others, let go of what you think they should or shouldn’t do, and allow yourself to create your own happiness.

Unhappy couple image via Shutterstock

About Jen Picicci

Jen Picicci is an artist and writer. She creates inspiring artwork for healers and those on a healing journey, and when she's not busy with a paintbrush, she can be found wrangling a toddler, petting a cat, or hugging a tree. To learn more about her and get free uplifting art for your mobile devices, visit www.jenpicicci.com.

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  • Dan

    Great article and so true!

  • lv2terp

    GREAT post!!! Something I am still working on to this day, thank you for the reminder s and great insight! 🙂

  • Sherman Smith

    Hey Jen,

    I know quite a few people that will find this post helpful including myself. By expecting people to act the way you want them to act can lead to a lot of disappointment, depression, and being more self absorbed. Yes this is a killer of relationships with others as well as yourself.

    Like you said the best way to live is more in the moment and being less focused on how others “should be”. That’s based on culture and more so subjective. But by living in the moment more often you’ll be in the state of happiness and peace.

    Thanks for sharing! Have a good one!

  • Jen

    Thanks for commenting, Sherman! I still feel that I have to work on this every single day, but it’s so worth it.

  • Jen

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it, makes my heart happy 🙂

  • Jen

    Thank you!

  • Sri Purna Widari

    This is one of my biggest issues in life.
    As a matter of fact, I am now struggling with it.
    And it is very hard.
    Thank you for sharing this wisdom and insights.
    I appreciate it.

  • Debra

    I also struggle with the way people react to certain instances, I do agree with you, it is how we respond but I can’t help feeling that there is a fine line between feeling like a doormat for some people’s unhappiness.

  • PJR

    I am sorry, I hate all of these articles about NOT having expectations. I expect to get what I am willing to give. Why waste my time If I don’t get it back??

  • Jamie Pflughoeft

    Great article. I think it speaks as much to the concept of self-validation as it does expectations. I have a good friend that I care about deeply who has lost most of his friends because, in his words ‘people disappoint me and let me down’. What I came to learn about my friend is that he constantly seeks external validation from other people because he can’t/doesnt validate himself. When he ‘tests’ people (his words), and they fail to live up to his (unreasonably high) expectations, he feels let down. The external validation he seeks is like a bottomless pit- it’s never enough. I’ve been talking to him a lot about the concept of self-love, and he is very open and receptive to change. But what are some baby steps one can take when they are so far away from self-validation? Seems like a wide chasm to cross when you are just getting started.

  • So true! I try not to have expectations so that they’ll always be exceeded. But I find that I naturally imagine how the other people would react, which is an expectation…

  • LaTrice Dowe

    Fantastic article. I do have expectations, but at the same time, I shouldn’t rely and depend on those to make me happy. Only I can do that.

  • Hi Jen,

    I am releasing expectations a bit more here and there. Being in the Now keeps you present, grateful, loving and expectation free. As for my bonds I simply love to give, to help and to be grateful for each connection. Being grateful releases me from expecting anything. The bond or connection is the reward. Or the moment is the reward. I need not expect anything of my friends. I am grateful to have them.

    Ditto on happiness too. I expect little these days because I’m pretty dang happy with what is. If I do have some tough stretches my expectations and focus on the future creates the worry or anxiety. No good. Expect less and less. Be grateful for the here and don’t. Don’t focus on expecting people to lift you up or pull you down. You do that through your presence of mind. Thanks so much Jen.

    Ryan

  • I actually think this is a great article with a lot of important things that we all need a little reminder of. It’s hard to prioritize ourselves in today’s world without a little push – no matter who we are. 🙂

  • MissE

    Hello PJR!

    The way I see it, is to manage expectations. Not so much about not having any (which is obviously unrealistic.) Yes, you have made a good point about knowing when to move on when one does not get what one expects. However, that is only possible when one is aware of what they are expecting (whether if it is realistic or not) and are they surrounded with people who do the same. Well, environment does play a huge part in shaping our expectations, that is, if we are surrounded by people who possess unrealistic expectations, it is only natural that we become like them.

    Thus, I see where Jen is coming from. It is to manage expectations. Simply because we can never avoid or eradicate expectations but to manage our own expectations, duly, so that we remain and embrace positiveness! 🙂 Cheers!

  • PJR

    Thanks for your reply. I still do not however understanding “managing” expectations. I stand firm when I say I expect what I am willing to give. Anything else is not managing but rather…settling.

  • Sarah

    Based on my own experience, I would think the first step would be to check himself and both acknowledge and question these feelings at the moment they happen, every time they happen (maybe even keeping a written record). It sounds minor, but so often disappointment and other negative emotions are part of an inner dialogue. Because this dialogue is always in the background, it can feel like you have no control over these feelings and that disappointment is something that ‘just happens’, as you let it wash over you. Maybe your friend could even take that moment to acknowledge a moment that made him feel good in the relationship. Acknowledging and questioning yourself puts you back in the driver’s seat and offers the possibility to change your inner dialogue. This is one of the main tips I took away from Tolle (Power of Now) in battling my depression, and I found it extremely self-validating to acknowledge my own inner dialogue and learn how to ‘talk back’ to my negative emotions.

  • pinky

    I think it’s more about not allowing your expectations to bring you down. It’s managing your reactions to the expectations, rather than the expectations themselves.

    It’s not about settling – it’s about evaluating the situation and making a choice. You either accept that maybe your expectation was unrealistic and thus the other person is entitled to their reaction. Or, if you think your expectation is valid, you can move on from that person without letting their actions effect you / or tell them how you feel in a rational way because you are no longer personally affected/insulted by what they have said or done. If that makes sense!

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  • Vid

    Don’t mind, but I actually felt it was a very kiddish article. I kept waiting till the end for something to happen, but unfortunately nothing happened. You may have a tendency to live in your fancy world, which is perfectly OK, therefore you have just too many expectations even over insignificant issues. The incidents you have cited, frankly speaking, are only due to your over-imagination and may not be called as ‘expectations’. Probably you need to explore world to better grip the idea of what having expectations from others and people not realizing them actually means. And probably your hyper imagination is due to your self-centered behavior.

  • Jen

    I get what you’re saying, PJR, though for me, expecting someone to be happy and then getting pissed off at them when they’re not (as I did with my husband), is NOT a healthy or happy way to live life. It doesn’t allow anyone else to have their own free will, it’s all “do what I want or you’ll be sorry.” If I expected my friend to text back in an hour and she didn’t and I decided not to pursue a friendship because of it, that doesn’t really seem like a reason to move on. I don’t really mean you shouldn’t have expectations for people to treat you with respect, or that you should put up with someone abusing you, but that’s more of a boundaries issues, in my opinion.

  • Jen

    Has he ever considered therapy? I have found counseling and also coaching to be so helpful in the realm of learning about boundaries, finding happiness in myself rather than seeking it externally, etc. If not, maybe a book like Byron Katie’s “Loving What Is” as a way to start to accept situations as they are? Good luck.

  • PJR

    Thanks pinky I agree with you

  • PJR

    Jen I agree with you

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  • Jen

    You got it!

  • Jen

    That’s what I do, too! I always guess, without even realizing it, how others will react.

  • Jen

    I agree with you Debra, you definitely don’t want to be in the doormat position. I would say in my example with my husband, if I had stayed on the phone with him for an hour while he complained, I would have been a doormat. Saying, “I understand you’re frustrated, maybe we can talk later when you feel better” after listening for a few minutes would have probably been the best way to go. Again, I think it really comes down to boundaries (which I have a history of sucking at, but am trying really hard to get better!)

  • Jen

    My pleasure

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  • This is a great reminder of something I am always forgetting! Thank you – it does make life easier to see things this way.

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  • Shanker

    Great Point. More than most people do, I need it most. I wish to had read and realized this decades back, therby saved a lot of bad feelings in myself.

    Thanks Jen!

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  • MissE

    Thank you, Pinky! Yes! Managing the reaction to the expectation! Thanks for nailing that! XD

  • MissE

    Hello PJR!

    Dear Pinky has explained one part of what I meant. Haha. Managing our reactions to expectations. So, for instance, if my partner expects me to pick up the phone whenever he calls, I can either…

    Reaction 1: Understand his pov on why he has that expectation, discuss and come to a consensus together. Or..
    Reaction 2: Move on, either without knowing why or knowing but both parties stand firm on their ways and refuse positive change. (Harmful effects here!)

    Thus, managing expectations (to me) means, to discuss and come to a consensus if the expectation is viable. Just like the above scenario, if my partner is so critical to me picking up his call whenever he calls and the reason is something due to phobia of me doing something behind his back etc…then, that would require professional psychological assistance – which is, a way to manage the expectation too. 🙂

    But nonetheless, there are times in life where expectations are non-compromising. In that case, we would again, manage that expectation to see if we want to move on or stay on.

    Cheers!

  • MissE

    Thanks Jen, for the great write up and reminder that it’s so easy to slip back into the “you should be…” sorta mindset at times. But, choose happiness always! 😀

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  • Abigail Odiet Wojahn

    Just brilliant. Totally true. Thank you for your amazing insight and awesome writing. Keep on keeping on Jen!

  • Ro

    Don’t throw away a friend because she doesn’t handle death well. I am a good friend to my friends, but I can’t manage death. I empathy cry like no one else, and I can’t keep it together, so unfortunately, I go running in the other direction in those times. Maybe you should tell her that you took it personally. That you didn’t understand her distance when you felt you needed her.. she might be able to give you some perspective.

  • P Robbins

    Thank you Ro for your reply. No, in my case my friend was available to others who sustained loss. I think in my case, she didn’t value our friendship enough to extend the same to me. It’s a been a year now since I made my decision. I feel I did the right thing.