Why Expectations are Unreasonable in Romantic Relationships


Expectations and Love are Incompatible

Every now and again, a coaching session veers into the therapeutic realm. Sometimes what is revealed can be amazing, even life changing. The following account  with a woman I’ll call Barbara proved to be one of those.


“But isn’t okay to have reasonable expectations of someone?” Barbara asked.

“Reasonable?” I asked.

“You know…like…a husband not beating you.”

“Wow, that sounds like more than an expectation. Where are you going with this?”

“Well…” she stammered.  “I’ve been helping a friend, and her husband treats her pretty badly. She asked me about how to set boundaries and what was reasonable.” She paused for a moment. “I told her I’d get back to her.”

“Do you want the whole answer?” I asked.

“Yes,” she responded.

“Here’s the deal: There are no reasonable expectations of others. But let me explain that carefully. First, we have to determine our non-negotiables, things that are simply not open for discussion. If those aren’t in place, there can be no relationship. Seems to me that some basic regard for one’s wife should be a given, and that would put abuse off limits.”

“Right. But isn’t that an expectation?” Barbara asked.

“Oh no,” I replied. “You’re not expecting it. It’s a baseline. No basic regard, no relationship. Period. If it’s not there, there’s no basis for a relationship. An expectation of the other party doesn’t even enter into it. If anything, it’s an expectation we place on ourselves.”

Then, you need to determine your needs and wants. To articulate them so you know what they are. Then you have to do an appraisal of a prospective partner. If a reasonable portion of your needs and wants can’t be easily met, it’s probably not a good fit. That person is not going to work well for you, so again there’s no basis for a relationship. And no need for expectations to be placed on them.”

“Make sense?” I inquired.

“Not really,” she admitted.

“Okay. It’s like this. If sixty or seventy percent of your needs and wants aren’t automatically met by the other person, it’s probably just not going to work. It’s a matter of fit. And to be honest, maybe that should be eighty percent or more.”

“Oh…I get it. Just by them being who they are, a lot of my needs and wants should be met…without even asking, right?”

“Yep. A matter of fit, not of expectations.”

“As for the rest, here’s an approach from Pia Mellody that I’ve adapted slightly. First, ask for what you need or want. Second, pause and breathe; don't belabor things and listen to your intuition. Third, notice what you get. There are only three possibilities: either your partner will provide it, or they’ll respond to the need but not in the way you were expecting, or they won’t respond to it. The first two are perfectly acceptable, but you have to be paying attention to see what they do. Thus, pause and breathe, and notice what you get.”

“What if they don't?” Barbara asked.

“Now, that’s where the magic happens. First, realize they are not saying ‘no’ to you, they’re saying ‘yes’ to themselves in the interest of self-care. Second, you’d never want them to compromise their own well-being. So you must trust they have done the best they can, and then figure out how to meet your own needs.”

Seeing True

To place an expectation on anyone is inconsiderate and inconsistent with love and loving. Worse still, expectations inevitably lead to disappointment and resentment.

If you want to experience harmony, relinquish your expectations. Focus instead on meeting your own needs and wants. Then you can be free to relate and to love. You might even experience being loved.

Seeing True in Action

Be bold and see how much you can increase your life practice by mutually exploring the following question with a partner, lover or close friend:

  • Do you feel like I have expectations of you? Can you describe them, and how they make you feel?

This is another occasion where you might want to pause and breathe, then notice what comes to you.

Updated February, 2018