By David Hegg
Over my years counseling families, and especially married couples, I have found that most problems can be traced back to the area of expectations. And I’ve boiled it down to this: unexpressed expectations are hardly ever met, and unmet expectations are hardly ever forgotten.
Expectations. We all have them, and we have them in almost every area of life. We walk into restaurants and shops with certain expectations of their products, service and staff. We get into our cars with rock-solid expectations for our trip and especially for the attitudes and actions of the other drivers we’ll encounter. We have a whole list of expectations for our employer or employees, our neighbors, our friends and our governing officials. I could go on and on to list the myriad areas where we have carefully crafted expectations, but defining the areas isn’t my goal.
My goal is to look specifically at the role expectations play in our interpersonal relationships. And I’ll limit it to our relationships with our spouses, our kids and our workplace partners. These are the arenas where unmet expectations can cause the most harm in us all.
Have you ever found yourself sideways with someone you were close to, and couldn’t for the life of you understand why? It might have gone like this: For reasons unknown to you, there seems to be a cold war brewing between you. Conversation has stopped, and the non-verbals are like darts and you’re the bull’s-eye. When you’ve had enough, you dare to confront only to be told some variant of, “If you don’t know, I’m sure not going to tell you!”
You persist in trying to figure out what’s wrong only to find — finally — that you failed to meet the other person’s expectation. It doesn’t matter just what it is. You just didn’t live up to an expected standard. And the situation only gets worse when, in response to your naive declaration that you didn’t know, the anger rocket’s second stage ignites amid a flurry of “I can’t believe you could be so insensitive to my needs” or something like that. Now you’re mad, and the other person is madder still, and the situation heads downhill from there.
Here’s the problem. While we all have expectations — and let’s face it, we have way more than we admit or even realize — the vast majority of them never leave the comfortable security of our own minds.
People who are always expressing their expectations are labeled needy or worse, so we learn early on to keep our wants and expectations of others’ behavior to ourselves. But, that doesn’t stop us from feeling hurt, mad or both, when our private set of rules and regulations for life are broken by those around us.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If unexpressed expectations are hardly ever met, and unmet expectations are hardly ever forgotten, then the solution is right in front of us. We need to be more communicative to those we love and live with, while at the same time recognizing that expressed expectations invite others to engage in a process that will, hopefully, produce the best, mutually agreed-upon expectation for all.
But there is one more side to the story. Certainly, increased communication among spouses, friends and co-workers can reduce the carnage of unmet expectations to a degree, but what is needed additionally is a strong ethic of patience and trust.
Patience is the willingness to wait before jumping to the most negative conclusion, while trust takes over and chooses to think the best rather than the worst until objective evidence to the contrary is clear and incontrovertible. In good relationships, communication takes care of most of the problems, while patience and trust deal decisively with the rest. The partnership between skilled behavior (communication) and strong values (patience and trust) is absolutely necessary for strong, productive interpersonal relationships.
It is time we start putting some greater expectations on our own area of expectations. It is time we choose to communicate clearly while growing in patience and trust just in case those around us don’t. I think that is what those around us are expecting, even if they don’t say so.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.