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Are You Holding Onto Unrealistic Expectations in a Relationship?


Often expectation fails and most often there where most it promises,
And often it hits where hope is coldest and despair most fits.
Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

Expectations. We all have them and hold them dear, yet often we do not fully acknowledge the power they have over us. They have the ability to rule our days from the moment we wake until the hour we sleep. They help us to make our biggest decisions in life, and they are often the root of our greatest heartaches.

Expectations alone are not bad. They help us with our goals and give us the ability to plan and make sense of even the most difficult decisions. The issue comes when our expectations are not met and how we deal with that disappointment or change in direction.

Shakespeare’s words ring true even today. Expectation can fail us and most often in the areas that they play the biggest role. Or at least it feels that way because of how much we have rested on them. A small breakdown in expectations rarely will stop us, while a large one can instantly change the way we look at our lives. For example, you expected to have lunch with a friend but he had to cancel at the last minute. No big deal, reschedule and continue on with your day. While larger situations, such as a hurtful, unexpected response from a parent or spouse can change your relationship and cause deep pain.

For those larger failed expectations it can be easy to place the blame entirely on the other person. How could they do that? Why would they hurt me in that way? But what is our role in the process?

Building realistic expectations

You may find yourself in a situation in which you are constantly let down or hurt by a specific individual. The person means something to you, you’ve come to depend on him or her, but you are often left disappointed. If you find yourself at this point, explore whether or not you have you created a realistic view of this person and this relationship. Are your expectations built on past experiences or what you wish the individual would be or do?

A change in your perspective and attitude could help you tremendously if you find yourself in this situation. That doesn’t mean that your outlook has to be negative – “They say they are going to help me, but I know they will just bail at the last minute.” It does mean that you create a clear understanding of what you can expect and accept the current state – “I would love to ask Tom to help me out this weekend but he may not be the best person. I’ll call Joe instead.”

At times our expectations of others are what most people would consider reasonable, but still some individuals may be unable to meet them. Redefining your expectations based on people’s current capacity to give and respond isn’t “letting them off the hook” but instead a way to bring more peace and stability into your own life.

Continuing to rely on expectations that have been proven to fail turns a “them” problem into a “me” problem. Refusing to change expectations and then being surprised when others fail to meet your expectations is a situation that will continually cause pain and firmly root your feet in an unhealthy cycle.

Redefining the relationship

Shifting your expectation thought processes doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to cut the person out, become passive aggressive or even limit your relationship. You may instead need to redefine the relationship. To illustrate, you may find that you are reaching out to your ex hoping for friendly exchanges, but he or she continually responds coldly. In this case it may be time to shift your view of what your relationship will entail and how you will interact with your ex going forward. Or perhaps you continually find yourself disappointed in the way your mother responds to an emotional need or conversation. As difficult as it may be, you may have to realistically look at the type of parent-child relationship you will be able to create with her.

Sometimes you will come across someone in your life that isn’t able to give you the type of relationship or emotional connection you are hoping for and expecting. Reevaluating these relationships is a necessary part of creating healthy emotional attachments with people that are available. It will also create room in your life for the people and connections that can fulfill your hopes or needs. Accepting that a relationship is not what you were expecting can be difficult. Letting go of dreams or hope when they involve something you care about can be downright heartbreaking, but without finding this acceptance, disappointment will always live in your future.

Are You Holding Onto Unrealistic Expectations in a Relationship?

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2016). Are You Holding Onto Unrealistic Expectations in a Relationship?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Feb 2016
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