I can’t speak for anyone else, but I feel like I took a lot of things away from premarital counseling that have stuck with me for the long haul. Couched among talks about budgeting and the division of household chores was a conversation about children. Our counselor asked us to close our eyes so that we could answer a couple of questions without cueing off one another. She first asked us, by a show of hands (or in this case, fingers), how many children we wanted. Before we were allowed to open our eyes, she inquired about when we might like to have said children. To our utter shock and dismay, or perhaps hers, she promptly accused us of cheating.
When asked how many children we wanted, my fiancé and I presented the same number of fingers. Likewise, when presented with the question of how long we’d like to be married before bearing children, we were in agreement. Clearly, we must have been in cahoots. The counselor was shocked that our answers had been the same because history had influenced her expectations. And history indicated, apparently, that many couples do not have important conversations before becoming engaged or getting married. Interestingly, though, this was not a primary takeaway for me. What I did latch onto, on the other hand, is the underlying premise of this interaction – unspoken expectations.
While our counselor was not quick to point out her own unspoken expectations in the moment, she did have an earnest conversation with us about our unspoken expectations with one another. And this, my friends, was an interesting conversation. So often, it seems, our fights or disagreements or misunderstandings are resultant of unspoken expectations.
Unspoken expectations have been called any number of things: premeditated resentments, impossible standards, fatal to relationships, the root of all heartache. So what are unspoken expectations? Typically, these are beliefs that someone will or should do something that we haven’t talked with them about or written down for them. It’s like someone has broken the rules, but nobody ever told them what the rules were.
In the previous scenario, the counselor’s expectation was that we had not carried on mature conversations about our future life together, but unspoken expectations can present themselves in any relationship. If we, if you and I, do not communicate our wants and desires to others, we are setting ourselves up to be let down over and over again. Marriage just happens to be a good example because, as with many relationships, we carry a lot of baggage with us into the new endeavor.
Do we expect our wives to stay at home, care for the children and greet us with the paper while preparing dinner when we arrive home from work? Is that a realistic expectation? If that’s what you experienced growing up, it might be how you perceive marriage. The same applies to any number of circumstances. We tend to form our expectations out of lived experience.
The problem is that we haven’t all had the same experiences. We weren’t all raised in the same environment with the same values. That doesn’t inherently make our experience or expectations right or wrong, but these are conversations we must have. We can ease the burden of expectation and decrease opportunities for misunderstanding if we just open the lines of communication. And sometimes these are conversations that we are forced to have with ourselves.
We’re not always good at identifying expectations, at least not until it’s too late. Oftentimes our expectations, particularly the unspoken variety, don’t rear their ugly head until we find ourselves disappointed. Then we can ask ourselves why we’re so upset. Then we can look within rather than lashing out or blaming others. Then we can figure out how to prevent this from playing out again in the future.
According to Janine Popick, there are three key ways to manage expectations: 1) make no assumptions, 2) communicate, communicate, communicate, 3) pushing back is OK. What she means is this. Don’t assume that people understand what you want or even understand what you’re talking about. Be as clear as possible, and elicit feedback until you’re sure you are on the same page. Then follow through. Check in on a regular basis. Be realistic. Your expectations, spoken or not, may just be unrealistic and unattainable. And when someone pushes back, they aren’t necessarily challenging you.
But key to managing expectations is the realization that the only expectations we can truly manage are our own. It’s like the core truth behind the phrase, ‘you didn’t get them drunk, and you can’t get them sober.’ I can’t change you, and you can’t change me. At least not drastically or significantly. Not without my permission. So that means the only person I can change, the only person I can control, is me. The only expectations I can truly manage are my own.
So I have to stop.
And in that breath (inhale 2, 3, 4 exhale 2, 3, 4) I get to evaluate my expectations. I get to realize that I know you. You’ve always been this way. You’ll probably always be this way. So why should I struggle with unrealistic expectations? And in that moment, I am able to let it go. No anger. No harsh words. No disappointment. Expectations managed.
– Alex Walker