Are you unlucky in love? Do your relationships never seem “good enough” to last? Do your partners invariably let you down? Maybe your expectations are unrealistic.
Jeannie called me to set up an appointment two months after her last break-up. Though the wounds were still fresh, she was eager to get my help to, as she put it, “find the perfect man.” My antennae went up when I heard that phrase. I agreed to meet with her once to see if I thought she was ready to work with a matchmaker and coach. I suspected that we’d have to work first on her unreasonable expectations.
Like all of us, Jeannie longed to feel loved and accepted. But every time she found a nice guy to date, she was overwhelmed with feelings of disappointment. Her last boyfriend even told her when they broke up, “I’m never good enough for you.” When she confided that information, I said, “Perhaps that is true. Let’s look at why.”
Why do some of us cling on to impossible ideals, or demand such a level of “perfection” that no relationship has a chance? There are a few possible reasons:
• Popular culture. Never underestimate the overwhelming power of the media. Most of us are aware of the damage done to women’s body image by advertisements that promote an ideal of beauty that is impossible unless you can airbrush your entire body before going to work. The same is true for our understanding of love. Rom-coms typically end when the relationship really gets serious. The “happily ever after” is implied, and we never get to see the grit and reality of a true relationship unfolding. The idealized versions of him and her in these movies are often adorable or inspiring but even the best of us are only that great some of the time. Men are as influenced by popular culture as women. There are few popular films that show income disparity, or what it’s like to juggle two schedules and two careers, or how couples balance their expectations of who does what around the house, or how to navigate in the bedroom (cinematic sex scenes are the worst!). Much of people’s misunderstanding about what to expect is due to societal programming and to escape its influence takes work and honesty.
• Childhood experience. For people whose parents failed to form healthy attachments with their kids, or were inadequate nurturers, or worse yet, abusive or neglectful, it is not uncommon to suffer from feelings of abandonment, disappointment, or unworthiness. It is possible to live with people on a daily basis—parents or a romantic partner—and feel lonely, or never have that feeling of affirmation that is so important. When nurture and attachment are missing in early emotional development, the damage done to us is part of the baggage we carry into our romantic relationships. We may not even realize that we expect our partner to make up for the losses. Part of being in a successful relationship is to realize that it is okay and normal to make up for some of those emotional gaps, but we cannot expect our partner to “fix” us. Navigating this delicate psychological terrain is important and takes commitment.
• Stereotypes. Often stereotypes are either created or greatly buttressed by the media, and obviously by the environment in which we grew up and live. They say that stereotypes are based on a germ of truth, but that is not always true. Some are simply dangerous inventions or the product of ignorance and hate. Even today, many men grow up assuming that being with a woman means having a cook and housekeeper handy, even if she is a full-time career woman. There are still women out there who think a man is a meal ticket, and she can quit her job to pursue her sculpting. These stereotypes are unreasonable, false, and unfair. There are many, more subtle, stereotypes that can undermine a healthy relationship. When people project an expectation on their partners based on a preconceived idea, they may be unable to see them as they actually are.
As you can imagine, having unrealistic or overly idealistic expectations of your partner can lead to a variety of problems. Possible outcomes of having unrealistic expectations include:
√ Expectation of physical perfection. If you can only visualize yourself by the side of a flawless “10,” you will either be unable to find anyone to date at all or you will end up with a very shallow relationship, one based solely on looks.
√ Shoulds. If you have a pre-conceived idea of what your partner should do in the relationship or how he or she should behave, you will be disappointed. Those “shoulds” will be the downfall of the relationship.
√ Desire for need fulfillment. It is reasonable to think that your partner will fulfill some of your relationship needs, but he or she cannot fill all your needs as a human being. No one can be responsible for your happiness or fix your life.
√ Frustration or disappointment. If your partner doesn’t read your mind or mood, though you have not spoken, do you feel frustrated or annoyed? It happens to everyone sometimes. We think, “Don’t you know me by now?” But if you are always feeling disappointed and frustrated that your partner does not anticipate your actions, thoughts, or moods, it’s a sign of unreal expectations.
√ Fear of inadequacy. You may find yourself interpreting the actions or perceived “failures” of your partner as a sign that he or she does not love you. This fuels feelings of inadequacy and fear of abandonment.
√ Falling in love too fast. The idealization of the love object can lead you to fall too fast, only to find out that the feelings you have (or think you have) are not reciprocated. This can result in devastating disappointment and hurt.
√ Control issues. If your expectations are over-the-top, you may find that you wield your power in the relationship in such a way as to control the other person, in an unwitting attempt to “make” them fit your desired profile. The slippery slope of manipulation and control makes it very hard to forge or maintain a relationship.
The 7 outcomes listed above can be avoided. Below are some ideas about how you can shift to realistic expectations and avoid those outcomes.
√ Don’t judge a book by its cover. Cliché, but true. Do not allow yourself to be manipulated by the exterior, or your expectations of how someone should look. Look for the imperfect person who is perfect for you.
√ Ditch the shoulds. You can’t assume that your partner will respond to things as you would. Try to see and appreciate your partner as he or she is, and depend on open communication for sorting out reasonable expectations. (Yes it is okay to expect your boyfriend to put clothes in the hamper, but his desires and actions may not always align with how you would behave in any given situation.)
√ Take responsibility for your own happiness. There are things you can do to enhance your self-esteem and ability to love yourself more. Take care of yourself and realize what an amazing person you are—your partner loves you, shouldn’t you too? (For some ideas about this check out these blogs: Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence PART 2 – How to improve Self-confidence and Start with Loving You: New Year’s Love Intentions.
√ Understand what is involved in a good relationship. Despite what the latest movie may have led you to believe, real relationships are about more than attraction and humorous dialogue. They take clear communication, effort, and mutual respect.
√ Challenge your fears. If you are plagued by feelings of inadequacy or fear of abandonment, ask yourself questions such as:
o “Is it true that if my partner doesn’t love me that I’m worthless?”
o “If my partner leaves me will I will wither up and blow away?”
o “Are my fears really valid? Is there any evidence that I am about to be left?”
See yourself as independent from your partner and don’t base your entire self-worth on being loved by someone else.
√ Slow the love train down. If someone new wants to move slowly, that’s okay. In fact it’s likely a good idea. It does not reflect on you! We all have our own pace. Consider what you bring to a relationship rather than what you are going to get out of it or what your partner is going to do for you.
√ See your partner realistically. And accept him or her as is. Entering a relationship based on what your partner “could become” or “might be one day” is a recipe for disaster. Just as you want to be valued for who you are, so does your partner. Your relationship will be more real and more sustainable if you don’t try to mold your partner to fit you.
Some expectations are not unreasonable. There is such a thing as a relationship deal-breaker. These are black and white criteria that must be in place for a relationship to work. For you it might be anything from trustworthiness to neatness, from security to a desire for children. But if you find that the unreasonable expectation pitfall is tripping you up, time and again, take this blog to heart and see if you can open your mind and soul to yourself and others without rigidity. Disappointment is NOT inevitable. You can learn to throw unrealistic expectations out the door and have the relationship that works for you.