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How you can (both!) win the expectations game

“I’ll make something for us to eat as soon as I finish my coffee.” It was about 8 on a Saturday morning. “Are you particularly hungry?”

“No, that’ll be fine.”

At around 10:30 I was still futzing around and my partner was wondering what the f--- was going on. That’s a long time to wait for breakfast! I’d broken my promise!

Or had I? I pointed to my still-unfinished, half-full cup of cold coffee.

It did not go well.

A small pothole on the road of love? Sure. But then there’s this.

A couple is talking about having their first baby. The woman says, “Okay, but you have to promise that taking care of the child, from baby through college, will be a fifty/fifty thing for us. That you’ll participate as much as I do.”

“Of course,” he says. “Totally!”

And off they go, with WILDLY different ideas of what they’re actually talking about. Like if you order from Pepe’s Pizza, and they say, “Prompt delivery!” and you’re thinking, “Within a half-hour,” and they’re thinking, “As soon as we get around to it.”

And then there’s this. What if there’s a huge gap between who you’ve been led to believe your partner is as a human being—kind, smart, responsible—and who they turn out to be in real life—mean, dopey, irresponsible? That can be catastrophic.

Life is a game of expectations. We care WAY less about what happens than we do about there being a gap between our expectations and what happens. Experiencing bad things, if you expect them, is way less bad than experiencing disappointment.

So think about what that means...

It means that managing happiness in a long-term relationship is all about disappointment prevention. And that’s all about managing expectations. If you and I are in a relationship, we can’t—we just can’t—go around making random promises without being aware of the expectations they create in the other person’s head.

“I’ll be ready in a minute, honey!” is in fact an expectation creator. If you’re stupid enough to say that to me, I might be stupid enough to believe it. Then twenty minutes later, when you finally are ready, I’ll be all steamed up.

Now of course I can learn over time to translate. Your “I’ll be ready in a minute” generally means twenty minutes. So then it’s on me if I feel disappointed when I should know what you mean by “in a minute.”

But in reality, people’s experience of marriage is too often that it’s a series of broken promises, big and small. Why? Because we’re liars and fraudsters? No. It’s because we’re careless people pleasers. And we’re bad at managing our partner’s expectations.

So what would it be like to be GOOD at managing the other person’s expectations in a relationship?

Hey, listen, it ain’t easy!

But here’s the recipe. You have to make things

  • specific,

  • understood, and

  • accepted.

Now that’s exactly what you get when you go to a James Bond movie. Specific: It’s not a Jessica Biel movie. It’s part of the James Bond series we all know and love. Understood: the ticket seller knows we know that we’re going into a James Bond movie. Accepted: we reluctantly or joyously accept that this movie will not be a philosophical rumination on the meaning of life. There will be sex, tension, action, and heroism.

It’s harder when it comes to Saturday morning breakfast. I don’t want to make breakfast. My partner wants it sooner rather than later. So if I want to manage my needs—to finish my coffee—and my partner’s needs—to eat before getting “hangry”—I really need to be specific. “When I finish my coffee”—as we’ve seen—can be anytime. But “I’ll start it going by 9” is specific. Understood: I start at 9. It may be ready at 9:15, or 9:30, or later. But if I start at 9, I’m delivering on my promise. Accepted: “Okay, if you start at 9, that’ll be fine.”

Now our expectations are in alignment. If I don’t start at 9, then I’ve broken my promise. If I do start at 9 and my partner complains about “Hey, where’s my breakfast,” then they’ve broken their promise.

As long as you

  • don’t promise more than you can deliver, and

  • deliver what you promise, and

  • make sure there’s a good understanding of clear expectations, and

  • make sure your promises are accepted

then you can’t get into trouble.

So now you have two good choices, and one bad choice:

  1. Good choice 1: You can follow this procedure of specific, understood, and accepted promises, which makes for solid, realistic expectations and much satisfaction but takes a bit of work up front.

  2. Good choice 2: You can play it loosy-goosy, continue with vague expectations and the disappointments and misunderstandings that go along with that, and accept all this as your normal way of life, trying not to get too bent out of shape about it. Hey, life is messy!!

  3. Bad choice: Play it loosy-goosy and then suffer and agonize over how things turn out and blame each other.

#3, by the way, is how most people play it. As I said, a bad choice.

Have you ever had your house painted? Even a mediocre house painter will spend a lot of time prepping the walls before he starts slapping paint on them. He knows that if you set things up right, they come outright. So why wouldn’t you do the same thing in your relationship, which is, I hope, more precious to you than your freakin’ walls.

Set up your expectations right with each other, one little expectation at a time, and you’ll totally minimize your chances of being disappointed.

Why Couples Fight, in case you’re interested, is about exactly how to do this.


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