Expectations and Standards in Relationships

We all hold ourselves and the people around us to certain standards. Just like the “Golden Rule” of “treat others as you’d like to be treated,” our standards determine how to act when we’re by ourselves as well as how we behave towards others. Standards guide our relationships. But sometimes, we confuse standards with expectations. When our often-unvoiced expectations aren’t met, we feel let down, upset, or even angry. This, in turn, can damage our relationships. So, how can tell our expectations and standards apart and why is it important to understand that difference?

The Difference Between Expectations and Standards

Expectations and standards are two very different things. Expectations are the ideas we have about how we want certain situations to turn out or some people to be. Standards, however, are a level of quality that we set for ourselves that serve as a basis for good judgment. Put plainly, expectations are fictions that may or may not be realized. Standards are facts that we live by.

If we expect our partner to always greet us with a bouquet of roses and a smile after work, that is an expectation. It’s a dream scenario we create in our minds and want to have realized. At the same time, this is also a scenario that might not be realized. Consider this: how likely is it for your partner to always have the energy to pick up flowers for you after work? How likely is it that they’ll always have a great day at work and will be able to greet you with a smile? How likely is it that you’ll forget this and get upset when reality doesn’t match your expectations?

If, however, we expect our partner to be generally affectionate towards us but communicative enough to tell us when he or she has had a bad day at work, that is a standard. In such a case we don’t expect anything definite. We expect a certain standard of behavior: affection and respectful honesty. Imagine if your partner, who is generally affectionate, were to come home seeming upset, and they didn’t want to talk about it. How would you react? Would you be offended? Would you take it personally or think that you did something wrong? If this were to happen, then you would naturally feel upset. But if you were to get upset, this wouldn’t be because your partner didn’t meet your expectations. It would be because they didn’t meet the behavioral standards you have, thereby possibly hurting you or your relationship.

It’s important to have standards for yourself. It’s our standards that determine how others treat us. When we set such standards, we’re telling others that we respect ourselves, have high self-esteem, and are clear about what we want. By showing people this, we invite them to treat us with the respect that we deserve. Having high expectations of ourselves or others is the opposite of this. At times, we set high expectations because we feel like we don’t have any control but are trying to feel as though we do. We might also set high standards because we feel insecure in some way and are trying to compensate for that. The scenario mentioned previously, for instance, is a terrific example of this.

“Can I Live With This?”

Telling the difference between standards and expectations isn’t always easy. This is especially true in moments when either our standards or expectations aren’t met. In such moments, we can feel an array of emotions: anger, hurt, disappointment… These are all powerful emotions that can cloud our judgment and define our reactions. When we let that happen, we might lash out, yell at our partner, or even start a fight, none of which are constructive to our relationship. Because of this, it’s important to pull back when we are greeted with such a surge of emotions. Think back: when you’re faced with an obstacle, how do you best overcome it? Do you rush into the situation headlong, acting out of anger or panic? Or do you tackle the problem calmly and without rushing?

Odds are, you deal better with a problem when you’re calm and collected. So, let’s say your partner did something that either doesn’t meet your standards or your expectations. Instead of taking this as a call to arms, take a deep breath and pull back. Take deep, calming breaths and focus on the flow of air around you. If you need to, leave the room to give yourself physical space. Settle down and sit comfortably, and just observe your emotions. Is it anger you’re feeling? Panic? Disappointment? Fear? Try to understand why you’re feeling this way. Is it because your partner left the dishes in the sink, despite your having asked them not to do so many times before? Or is it something deeper? Do you, maybe, feel disrespected as a result of your partner’s behavior? Or do you feel as though you’re ignored?

Observing your emotions and reactions and then questioning them can help you to get to the bottom of what fuels these feelings. It might be difficult, but an excellent way of doing this is to ask yourself: “Is this serving me?” Is this emotion you’re experiencing or the reaction you’re giving serving you? In other words, is this emotion or reaction helping me or hurting me? Is it serving my needs as an individual or is it, in fact, a hindrance? Questioning this can help you to let go of what you need to let go of and acknowledge what you don’t. Once you do, you can decide in a calm, rational environment: Can you live with the behavior that your partner is exhibiting?

Can I Live with It?

Relationships are about compromise. Both sides have to make some adjustments. There are, however, some things that are our deal-breakers. Something or someone not meeting our expectations isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Something or someone not meeting our standards can be.

So, let’s go back to the dirty dishes example. Your partner keeps leaving their dirty dishes in the sink, despite your having asked them not to do so, repeatedly. Instead of blowing up at them, you leave the room for some quiet meditation. You’ve calmed yourself down and gotten to the root of your emotion. You now know, or are starting to know, why you feel the way you do about this situation. Now, ask yourself: can I live with this? Is “dirty dishes in the sink” a deal-breaker for you? Maybe it’s not. It may be annoying, but you can live with it. Maybe it is a deal-breaker, so the dishes absolutely have to be cleaned. Maybe it’s not the dishes that are the deal-breaker. It may be that you feel like you’re not being heard, and that is the real deal-breaker.

Asking yourself the “Can I live with it?” question is a perfect way of deciding what’s a standard and what’s an expectation. If you can live with something, odds are, it wasn’t a standard — just an expectation. If you can’t live with it, though, then it’s a standard that needs to be met.

Communication, Communication, Communication

You’ve sat down and meditated on the problem at hand. You’ve come to realize that the problem is because someone’s behavior doesn’t meet your standards. Does that mean that you walk away from your relationship right then and there? Not necessarily. That is to say, as long as there isn’t a serious problem – such as domestic violence or abuse – then walking away isn’t necessarily your first option. What you need to do instead is simple: communicate.

Relationships are generally built on two things: trust and communication. Everyone behaves and thinks according to their own set of standards and beliefs. If something in your relationship doesn’t meet your standards, then it’s crucial you discuss it with your partner. When you communicate why something is important to you, it stops being a chore or a note to remember for your partner. It stops being “I have to wash the dishes because my partner doesn’t like to.” Instead, it becomes “I have to wash the dishes because not doing so after they asked me to makes them feel like I don’t listen to them. I don’t want to make them feel that way.”

An important thing to remember when having this conversation is that there’s a right way to communicate and a wrong way. The wrong way to have this conversation would be to blame instead of explaining. It would be to just say “X isn’t working for me” and leave it at that. This won’t help us to solve the problem at hand. It might even make things worse because our partner might feel like we’re attacking them. And that, in turn, may lead to a fight.

The right way to communicate, on the other hand, is steering clear of blame. It’s explaining a situation in an understandable, polite way, without scolding or berating. It’s maybe even offering alternatives or middle ground. For instance, it might be saying “The dirty dishes in the sink really bother me. Can you put them in the dishwasher, if you don’t want to wash them?” Once you truly communicate with your partner, you can always ask yourself: can I live with this?

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