We bring expectations to relationships. We have minds that naturally anticipate, and therefore relationships can only function if we do expect certain things. But what happens when our relationship expectations are out of kilter with what happens? How do we cope with the suffering we may experience?
When Kate got together with her new boyfriend Mike, she was delighted at first. On their early dates he made a fuss of her, and she enjoyed being the centre of attention. But after a few months, she felt like the most neglected person in the world. It hurt her to be with him. She became bitter, and challenged him more and more often. Eventually, the relationship went sour.
After the relationship ended, it took Kate a long time to calm down. She was angry with Mike, but she also missed him intensely. The intensity of her feelings stopped her thinking rationally about what had really happened. For a while, she only knew psychological pain.
Eventually, she began to reflect on what had caused the rift between her and Mike. Instead of seeing herself as rejected, she began to see herself as a person with needs. She reframed the relationship. She saw her own needs as perfectly valid feelings. And she realised that Mike was unlikely to fulfil them.
BALANCING SELF- AND OTHER-ACCOUNTABILITY
Kate also began to split her needs into two. Firstly, those which she would choose to manage herself, outside a relationship. And secondly, those needs which she would hold a partner accountable for.
Before she went into a new relationship, she first built herself up in a happy single life. She rebuilt a supportive friendship network, and established routines of work and leisure that worked for her. Once this was done, she felt ready to try again in a new partner relationship.
This time, when she dated, she knew what she was looking for. She decided she did like to feel slightly special. She worked on how she would communicate this if she was’t getting that feeling. Instead of getting angry, she decided, she would simply state the wish, and be clear what she wanted.
Part of the new Kate was a different attitude to consequences. Before, she had got annoyed with Mike when she didn’t get the attention that made her happy. This had made him withdraw, which in turn had annoyed her further.
Her new approach was to say what she wished, and see what happened. If there was no change, she would state the wish more firmly, and make it clear what would happen if her partner didn’t respond. If her partner, even then, didn’t respond, then she would explain that her next move would be to end the partnership.
Her next two partnerships ended in separation (which she was in control of), but the one after that became a happy, responsive, mutually fulfilling relationship, where both parties could express their reasonable needs clearly, and get a clear response.
WHAT’S THE SECRET?
The secret is in the way needs are communicated.
In unhealthy relationships, personal needs are swept under the carpet until unbearable, and then fired at the other like bullets. The pattern is one of excessive patience, followed by excessive anger, with nothing subtle in between. The parties have not learned to negotiate situations. There is passive aggression, hiding and denial, followed by explosion, in-your-face-ness, and unpalatable directness.
In healthy relationships, personal needs are gently expressed as we go. Each person manages many of their own needs, and yet knows what they hope their partner will do. They hold their partner accountable for doing their bit, and are not afraid of asking, and watching for a response. If the desired response is not forthcoming, they are not afraid of taking action to secure their own happiness.
TWO SIDES TO EVERY RELATIONSHIP
Of course a relationship always has two sides. In Kate’s case, it may be that she wasn’t responding to Mike’s reasonable needs either. In which case, it may have been right that they separated. After Mike, as well as learning to express her own needs, Kate learned to listen out for others’ needs, and to hear them without fear.
In partner relationships, we will always suffer times when our expectations are not met. This can cause disharmony and, ultimately, separation.
If we spend time reflecting, we will see that we can meet many of our emotional needs independently of our partner. For those needs that remain, it’s reasonable to hold our partner accountable.
As we mature in relationships, we become better able to communicate our reasonable needs, and hold our partner accountable for meeting them. Instead of getting angry, we simply give them the opportunity to respond. If they don’t, after many requests, then we can be prepared to move on.
This helps us to select a good partnership, and then to ensure that the partnership continues to fulfil our reasonable needs. As we develop, we can also learn to listen out for others’ reasonable needs, and try to fulfil them. In this way, expectations get met both ways.