Clarifying relationship expectations

It is important to keep your relationship current in the present. The past is history and cannot be changed; the future is uncertain. A relationship thrives or withers in the present. In other words, ride the pony. Of course, keep the barn clean enough so you have room to ride, but don’t let barn cleaning take over your whole relationship. If you wait to take pleasure, and something unfortunate happens, you will regret the lost opportunities.

In marriage and relationship skills training, we have learned ways to look at our relationships.  We have learned tools that can make them better. We need to practice these tools. It is said that something new must be repeated at least forty times before it becomes a part of us. If you don’t use the skills, they will be forgotten. Practice them until they become automatic. Be proactive in caring for your relationship. When conflict arises, deal with it. Spend at least ten minutes a day thinking about where you are, what is going on within you and between each other, and what you want. Remember that relationships do not thrive if they are neglected.

Many couples who are unhappy in their relationship feel disappointed, if not outright betrayed, that what they expected to find in the relationship either hasn’t happened or has stopped happening. It is as if they had signed an invisible contract early in the relationship (“I agree to do these things, I expect to get those things in return, and I expect that you believe the same thing”) and their partner had failed to honor it.

A relationship is, after all, a series of expectations. Problems occur when two differing sets of expectations (beliefs, habits, preferences) collide, or when expectations change. Let’s say that you entered the relationship at a time when you could go out frequently, have leisurely dinners, and treat yourselves to luxurious vacations. Then you had children or developed a business, and suddenly there was no time. In effect, the terms of your initial contract have been modified. If your partner, feeling neglected, decided, “Okay, if you don’t want to spend time with me, I’ll fill my time in other ways,” you may end up feeling as betrayed as your partner.

“Contracting” isn’t a legalistic process. It simply means spelling out your expectations and, where there are differences, either negotiating them or agreeing to disagree. The “contract” isn’t written in concrete since change is inevitable. You will both develop new needs, desires, interests, jobs, friends, problems, etc. Contracts need to be flexible, renegotiable whenever you or your situation changes. However, you need to discuss and work those changes out together so that they don’t come about unilaterally or haphazardly.

If you grew up in a family where things weren’t discussed openly, or at least where nothing unpleasant was discussed, you may believe that when the situation or your feelings change you can’t talk about it. Marriages have ended because someone assumed that there was no point talking about something. It’s not talking about things with each other that leads to problems. It’s not talking and making erroneous assumptions that causes trouble.

Usually, most of a couple’s expectations are not even verbalized. Three levels of expectations can be seen in a relationship contract:

  1. Those that are verbalized (what I talk to you about).
  1. Those that are not verbalized (what I know I want or expect but haven’t talked to you about, and may feel uncomfortable discussing).
  1. Those that are outside of my awareness (I didn’t even know I expected this until I didn’t get it, or it didn’t happen, or whatever did happen made me extremely uncomfortable).

This third category of hidden expectations can cause enormous discomfort because they often relate to our fears of repeating parts of our history that were traumatic, although we may have ignored them at the time or suppressed them later.

Contracting for a better relationship falls into six general areas in which we look to find a comfortable balance:

  1. Power and control–who decides what?
  1. Assertiveness versus passivity–who takes initiative, who follows?
  1. Togetherness versus separateness–how much time together, how much apart?
  1. Dependence versus independence–and interdependence?
  1. Possessiveness versus trust–what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior for each of us?
  1. Role flexibility–who does what?


In preparation for working with your partner, consider your answers to these six questions:

  1. What do I want that I am not getting?
  1. What am I getting that I don’t want?
  1. What am I giving that I don’t want to give?
  1. What would I like to give to you, if only things were better between us?
  1. What am I getting that I do want?
  1. What is good for me in our relationship?

Clarify any items that are unclear to you. Add appreciations. Add any fears you have about discussing this, about telling this to your partner.

Some of the things couples have indicated they appreciate about their relationship; raising a family and growing old together; sharing joy, tears, laughter, confidences, chores and/or headaches; having common goals, interests, values, and memories; knowing someone cares; avoiding loneliness and the dating scene; the security of an exclusive relationship; the pleasures of sexual fulfillment, companionship, closeness and affection; and being accepted and appreciated by someone who really knows you. Some people focus more on specific qualities they appreciate in their partner, such as their sexiness, thoughtfulness, loyalty, flexibility, strength, supportiveness, or such talents as parenting, cooking, or making a living.

With your partner find a comfortable space where you can exchange and discuss your lists for information and clarity.

It is useful to consider your hopes and expectations in comparison with those of your partner.  Where expectations are different, negotiation is needed. It is also useful to share how both of you see your relationship at present, where work is needed, and appreciating those areas where your relationship is working well. Keep in mind that a serious lack of anything in a relationship can affect the other areas and eventually injure the relationship as a whole.

The goal is to clarify and articulate your expectations and hopes of the relationship. On those aspects of your relationship about which you can come to an easy agreement, this will be a simple matter of talking things over.

This is the beginning of what you need to do to reach a better understanding with each other. You can succeed if you come up with three, or two, or even one change in behavior that you have agreed to make in order to avoid some of the conflict in your relationship.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon