Shortly after I met my wife Lynn, I planned an awesome date for us: take her sailing on a local lake. She didn’t know I knew how to sail, nor did I own a boat, so renting a catamaran and enjoying the sun, breeze, and water that afternoon would be a delightful surprise for her. I was certain she would be impressed with my nautical skills and appreciate my thoughtfulness.
At the boat rental hut I saw her skepticism, but quickly passed it off as her disbelief that she was really getting this amazing treat. Once on the water, she seemed tense at how much the boat leaned when the wind filled the sail. The spray created when we cut through waves made her cold instead of being refreshing like I anticipated.
On the way home, I verified what I already knew: she did not enjoy our excursion. I took this very personally and pouted by turning cold and quiet. My funk continued and I took the very immature step of dropping her off without so much as a goodbye. How dare she not like my plan for a perfect afternoon!
My expectations were responsible for my hurt feelings, not her actions.
That evening, I had a sudden realization: she had done nothing wrong. It was all me—my negative feelings were entirely created by my expectations of how she should have responded to our outing. In other words, my beliefs were responsible for my hurt feelings, not her actions.
Expecting others to think, speak, or act a certain way really causes us unnecessary pain and suffering. As I considered it, I could think of many other examples. In fact, I could trace every conflict I’ve ever had, or anyone has ever had for that matter, back to missed expectations.
It’s not realistic to expect our partner to always agree, be in the same mood, or have the same desires. Believing our lover will say the right thing, solve our problems, make us feel loved, or make us happy are also unrealistic expectations. If you ever catch yourself thinking, “If he/she really loves me, they would ___,” then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Saying, “If he/she really loves me, they would ___,” sets us up for disappointment.
Assuming a great relationship will be conflict free is a big leap into fantasyland. Even happy couples argue. Conflict, when resolved in a constructive way, is healthy because it leads to greater understanding and even closeness between the individuals.
Expectations have a place
I’m not suggesting we never expect anything of anyone. It is perfectly realistic to expect our partner to be fair, kind, respectful, loving, affectionate, and loyal in general. The in general qualification is essential because, in any given situation, all of us can fall short of doing these well in a relationship.
It’s also okay to hope for favorable reactions, mutual desires, or pleasant outcomes. Hoping Lynn will like sailing or some other activity motivates me to plan our dates. However, forcing a particular outcome or being overrun with negative thoughts and feelings when it doesn’t work out becomes my issue of holding expectations.
So how do we keep from basing our feelings of happiness, worth, or confidence on the actions or reactions of other people? This is a particularly important question for those of us who are trying to stop our reactions that lead to violent or abusive behavior. Our bad reactions are caused by strong negative emotions, which grow from our missed expectations.
First, stop expecting other people to act exactly as you would like them to. When I start with no expectations of others, I’m often pleasantly surprised. Even if I’m not, I handle their actions with calm indifference rather than strong emotions that can quickly escalate into full-blown conflict. There is less internal pressure to get them to think, say, or do something in particular, so I’m less likely to try to control them.
Keep your expectations low, but allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised.
Second, be aware of what you are feeling, and especially watch for hurt, disappointment, or frustration with another person. Then, ask yourself what thoughts generated those feelings—likely there is a missed expectation behind them. Challenge those expectations by asking yourself if they are really true, fair, or realistic and let go of the ones that are not. The emotion will go away with the expectation.
For those pesky expectations that you can’t seem to get rid of, remind yourself this is just your present thought in the moment. Accept that disappointment happens, and remember that these negative feelings always do disappear. Ruminating on the other person’s actions or what will happen next just amplifies those feelings of rejection and fear well beyond the original slight.
Finally, build your own happiness and confidence on something you do have power over: your thoughts and beliefs. True internal peace comes from within, not from other people’s actions, words, or love. What you believe about yourself and how you talk to yourself is far more important than another person’s opinion, including your partner’s.
People will disappoint us. This is certain. If happiness only comes when those around us treat us the way we want to be treated, we will always be dissatisfied. The same can be said for our circumstances—we will constantly feel let down if we expect things will go our way every time.
However, there is another perspective that changes our satisfaction with life. We start with the notion that God created you and me on purpose, for a purpose. That purpose was to send us into this broken, fallen world to share his love with others—to make it a little less broken.
He’s given us all that we need for this mission. We need love, and he loves us unconditionally. He promises to provide for us and meet all of our needs.
We will experience disappointment and heartache, but we can take comfort that he’s already overcome the worst that the world can dish out. And, he’s promised that these letdowns are temporary; then we will have eternity with him in heaven. All of this is available for those who put their trust in him and invite him into their lives.
So while we can’t control the way people think, feel, or react, we don’t need to. We should expect those challenges because it is part of our mission here on earth. The different perspective changes our expectations, and therefore, our sense of fulfillment.