If something isn’t so great or it’s simply mediocre, most of us want to do our best to improve it — especially a relationship or marriage. In fact, we typically want to ensure that our romantic relationships last and get better over time. I’ve got a not-so-secret for you: even if we are constantly improving our relationships, without realistically managing expectations in relationships, you might find yourself feeling more and more annoyed and less and less in love.
As a coach and clinical sexologist, I often help my clients work to develop and manage healthy relationship expectations in order to improve the chances of their relationships lasting. And while there are lot of things you can do together to give your love a boost — there are also several things you can do on your own!
The way we think about our relationship and our partner can have a big impact on how we experience our relationship. And so it’s important to think about – and possibly change – our thought patterns about our partner and our partnership.
For instance, when we hit a low in the relationship it’s not uncommon for us to harbour critical thoughts about our partner.
We may think our partner’s selfish or doesn’t care about us.
We may feel our partner’s got boring, or that they don’t do enough around the house.
And while these things, of course, can be completely true, sometimes our thought patterns about said behaviours are a bigger reason our relationship is suffering – and this is where managing expectations becomes critical.
The more you’re able to change how you think about your relationship – from something negative to something positive – the greater the chances are that you and your partner will enjoy each other, and your relationship will be stronger.
One way of going about this is by doing the following exercises.
Before you move on to the exercise, though, I just want to emphasize that all relationships have problems (even that loved-up couple who keep posting about each other on Facebook have them!).
And if you’re experiencing deep difficulties, the solution isn’t necessarily always changing the way you think about the problem. Still, it is a way that’s proven useful — so see if you’d like to give it a go.
When our partner does something wrong – like forgetting to take the rubbish out on their way to work (as was promised) – our brain automatically tries to understand why our partner didn’t do what they said they would do.
According to relationship researcher Eli J. Finkel you can divide the brain’s understanding of this into these two categories:
The Temporary/Stable category is about how we perceive our partner’s behaviour from a time perspective.
If we think about our partner’s behaviour from a temporary perspective, we understand our partner’s failing to take the rubbish out, to be a coincidence.
If we think in terms of our partner’s behaviour as ”stable”, we see it as a ”classic” for our partner. It’s typical for our partner not to take the rubbish out.
The Inherent qualities/external qualities category is about what we ascribe to the behaviour.
If we think our partner failed to take the rubbish out because, for instance, they easily get tunnel vision in the morning when so much has to be done. Then, the behaviour is part of an inherent quality in our partner.
But if we think our partner left the rubbish behind because the fire alarm went off, and they had to get out quickly – well, then it’s about an external factor our partner couldn’t control.
You see how the same behaviour, thought about in different ways, can either increase annoyance or reduce it – pointing to how powerful changing our thoughts truly can be.
The factors above may coincide in various ways. We may, for instance, explain their behaviour the following way:
The above examples really showcase how our thoughts about a particular situation affect our mood. And how managing expectations in relationships isn’t about lowering them, but rather, viewing our partner differently.
The point isn’t that our partner doesn’t have annoying traits, because, let’s be honest — we all do. However, using this exercise can be helpful if we find ourselves being constantly annoyed by everything our partner does!
One thing to consider when using this exercise is that we will likely never know for sure why our partner behaves the way they do in every scenario (even if we ask them!). And perhaps always understanding isn’t even desirable – at least if we want to retain the relationship we have with them!
For this reason, and for us both to feel good in our relationship, it can be useful give our partner the benefit of the doubt.
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So, going back to the example about taking out the rubbish…
Rather than thinking that our partner didn’t forget about the rubbish, and instead simply didn’t bother to take it out because they’re selfish (an analysis built on the combination of stable and inherent qualities), we may instead think that our partner had a lot to do this morning. That our partner simply didn’t have the time (an analysis built on temporary, external qualities).
When we think in this way we increase the happiness in the relationship, and thus also, the durability.
Now, take a minute and think about something your partner did today or last week, that irritated or upset you.
One really interesting and contradictory way of managing expectations in relationships has to with idealizing our partner. Now, crazy as this may sound, give me a minute and I think you’ll find it pretty intriguing!
Researcher Sandra Murray found that those who idealized some of their partner’s traits, actually stood a better chance of creating a long-lasting relationship.
Idealizing our partner’s qualities hasn’t only been proven effective in a given situation, it also positively affects the way we perceive our partner’s less attractive traits.
If we for example idealize our partner’s ability to always look after others, it may soften the way we think about our partner’s less endearing qualities. Like them never remembering Valentines Day, or forgetting to give our children their vitamins in the morning.
Another way of doing this exercise is applying it to the positive things our partner does.
By thinking of their positive aspects – like baking a cake for us on a Sunday – as depending on internal and stable qualities (our partner’s a nice and caring person), this behaviour becomes even more positive to us.
Compare that to thinking that the cake baking was only due to our partner having more time on their hands (temporary and external quality). Then that cake won’t taste half as good in your mouth.
Maybe you don’t feel much of a change after doing this exercise – or maybe you do. The trick is to keep at it and notice the shifts over time!
When it comes to creating a relationship that lasts over time, the goal isn’t to try and eliminate all annoyances. We are only human and most relationships can withstand conflict.
However, if you want to make your relationship even better, and feel less annoyed, working on things like managing expectations in relationships, can be really helpful.
Next time you notice you’re getting a bit heated because your partner left the rubbish behind (despite promising not to) – pause. And try to think differently. By changing your view of your partner you might just notice you start to feel more of those butterflies and less annoyance.
Are you ready to take your relationship to the next level? My online program Re:Desire is for people with low sex drive (or differing sex drives), who want to increase desire, closeness and intimacy – without pressure and stress. Apply today and get access to a comprehensive, private training on my four-part framework for long-lasting desire and relationships.
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With 11 years of experience in the helping profession - Leigh helps her clients create stress-free, shame-free, pressure-free sex lives, through her unique combination of sexological science, & psychotherapeutic & coaching tools.