Unmet Expectations: The Truth About What Goes Wrong in Relationships


When I was in graduate school, we had the opportunity to have several therapists in the community speak to us about their specialty.  One such opportunity presented itself by way of a field trip to a couple’s therapist office.  He asked our whole class, “what do you think is the number one reason couples end up in therapy?”  We threw out various answers…sex!  communication!  finances!  All wrong.  Then he said something I’ll never forget:  unmet expectations.


It makes sense right?  When you think about it, no matter what the topic is, it likely stems from unmet expectations.  We went into the relationship or marriage thinking things would be one way, and boy were we wrong!  Or maybe it wasn’t that we were wrong as much as things really began to change over the years after job changes, kids, mortgages, etc.


It’s easy to end up feeling that sense of disappointment, loss, frustration, anger and maybe some blame of your partner!  We’ve all been there.


Emotional Intelligence


The thing is, if both partners have at least some emotional intelligence, they can really begin to work on things to where the relationship feels so much better!


Now it takes effort.  And probably some grieving over the loss of what they thought the relationship would be like.  But we can lean into the skill of adjusting, adapting, pivoting…whatever you want to call it to choose a new norm in our relationship.


What I’m Not Talking About


Disclaimer here:  I’m not talking about certain issues including domestic violence, addictions, infidelity, etc.  Those are better addressed over the course of several sessions or programs with trusted professionals.


How I Might Work on This With a Client


But for other issues in relationships, I do like to work with individual clients on understanding what the initial expectations were in the first place.  And why.  “When you and your partner were planning where you would live when she was done with medical school and residency, what did you hope for?  What did that look like?  How did you envision your life and relationship to be even better once that happened?”


And then I might move on into more of the grieving process with my client.  “So when your partner’s parent passed away unexpectedly and you both moved to her hometown to take care of the other parent, how did that change things in your relationship?  What loss from your former plans feels the hardest?”


After a period of grieving the loss of whatever the expectations were, I like to move into the stage of helping my client make new plans or reframe the changes as perhaps positive growth opportunities.  Or maybe neither of those options.  Maybe I ask gentle questions around my client’s contribution to the unmet expectations should the example above not be relevant.  Perhaps my client has struggled in being passive with expressing her needs.  Or maybe she has inadvertently pushed her partner away with the criticism she feels is justified.


What We’re Going For


These can be tough conversations.  But at the end of the day, if we want to get back to having a healthy and happy relationship with our partner, it may be helpful to learn some new ways of coping.  Things like how to explore past expectations in a healthy way, become introspective and aware and perhaps choose to adapt to new and more flexible expectations while communicating in healthy ways with our partner.

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