a multi-faceted outreach project aimed at encouraging happy, healthy romantic & parent-child relationships

"I Never Thought It Would Be Like This": How We Form and Cope with Expectations

It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and I’m trying to get a few chores done before I leave thirty minutes later to take our four children to school and myself to work. I walk into our laundry room, as I typically do, and lift up our washer lid to see if the clothes need to be started or switched and … I’m HIT in the face with an awful smell. For some reason, I lean in to smell again. YUCK! 

I know exactly what it is. 

“Who peed in my washer machine?!” I yell. 

But you see, this was really a rhetorical question- as I knew exactly who the culprit was. Some would call our son, Gavin, “an experimenter” and others would call him a “person who doesn’t give a shit about his mother’s things.” You know, to each their own. So what was his reasoning for this atrocity? 

 “You never told me I couldn’t.”

And that sums up Gavin’s reasoning for lots of the destructive things he does. Needless to say, we now have very specific rules about where you’re allowed to pee- in the toilet or outside away from where we walk or play. I can honestly say that I never expected that my life with children was going to be filled with rules about pee. But here we are. 

When people hear that I’m a relationship expert, they immediately start asking me for advice. Like right away. It’s a bit odd. I’m all, “I study the communication skills needed to maintain romantic and parent-child relationships” and people are all “How do I get my husband to do the dishes?” and “How do I get my baby to sleep through the night?”

Unfortunately, my answer to both of those questions is usually, “Ha! You can’t!” Then the conversation typically turns to talking about why marriage and parenting are so {insert adjective here}.

One of my favorite things to then talk about is expectations. How we develop them, how they impact our communication in relationships, and how we can cope with them.

As humans, we all want to know what’s going to happen next. You want to know about little stuff like what you're going to eat for dinner or how your day is going to go tomorrow, and you want to know about big things like what it’s going to be like when your next big life event happens- going to college, getting a new job, tying the knot, or having kids.

We develop expectations to help us best navigate these experiences. We base these expectations on lots of things. Two of them are below.

First, our relationships with other people shape our expectations. As we go through life and interact with lots of different people, we develop mental frameworks or internal working models in our brains that tell us how to view ourselves, how to view other people, and how to view relationships with others. And this starts at birth. Parents who consistently communicate with their children in a loving, sensitive, emotionally available manner create mental frameworks in their children’s brains that tells them that they are loved and loveable, that other people are typically good-intentioned and capable of being trusted, and that they should create relationships with others because it is rewarding. Unfortunately, when parents do not communicate with their children this way, maybe they’re completely unresponsive and even neglectful towards their children OR sometimes they’re sensitive to their child’s feelings and other times dismissive or aggressive towards their child’s feelings, the internal working models created can cause children to think negatively about relationship building and negatively of themselves and/or others. 

Our third child, Paxton, is a “wanderer.” For the longest time, when we would go to local events like the Skeleton Festival or the Veteran’s Day parade or Farm Day at the children’s museum, Paxton would… wander. He’d be with us one minute and then he’d be gone. I know; it was super scary. But it also, in my opinion, said something about his internal working model about other people. We’d look around and find him with some new friends or even with another family doing a craft. I’d say, “Pax, we were looking for you. You can’t go away from us like that.” And he’d say, “Meet my new friends! This is Jake and his mom is helping me pick paint for this rock I get to decorate!” See, in Paxton’s eyes, people are good-intentioned. He honestly believes that he could be friends with anyone and that people aren’t going to hurt him. We’ve since gotten him to stay closer, but he still generally looks at other people in the world through rose-colored glasses.

This whole idea is summed up in the quote from Peggy O’Mara- “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Your inner voice guides your expectation development like a steering wheel.

A second, and sometimes extremely heavy influencer on our expectations, is the media. We watch television shows and movies, go on social media, and read books and articles written by opinion leaders and experts to find out what to expect. Hell, there’s a whole multi-million dollar “what to expect” empire. The media is everywhere. 

Famous television and movie couples have a significant impact on our expectations about how we should find a partner, communicate and interact with each other once we’re connected to someone, and how we should feel in relationships. We want to see if the connection that we have with our significant other measures up to our expectations. Maybe you watched a lot of Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, or Malcolm in the Middle and you developed an expectation that a wife is destined to nag everyone in her family every single day of her life. Or maybe you watched a lot of Married with Children or Sopranos and you developed an expectation that men should not only not express their emotions, but also that they should degrade other people.

But it doesn’t stop there.

We also look at people on social media and compare our relationships to theirs. We look at people who are putting their highest quality photos typically about love and togetherness, and rarely about any of the hard stuff, on Instagram and Facebook. These images seep into our expectations about what relationships or parenthood or college life is supposed to be like. 

Maybe you see a photo of parents lovingly doing a craft project with their well-dressed, smiling children. They’re carefully gluing their tiny pieces of paper together, painting without mixing any of the colors, and they’re all smiling. You begin to develop an expectation that this is normal. Well, it’s not. Come to my house during craft time and it looks like a nuclear bomb went off where the warhead was filled with rainbow glitter and tiny shards of construction paper.

Sometimes these expectations help us- let’s say I have an expectation that people are generally good intentioned. This increases my likelihood to want to start and maintain relationships with other people- if I believe people are good, I probably don’t have as many trust issues. I’m also probably more willing to self-disclose, I’m more interested in getting closer when I’m in a relationship, and I probably don’t think people are out to get me. Or let’s I have an expectation about what a toxic relationship looks like. And then I’m suddenly in one. I will probably be more capable of realizing what’s going on and get out.

But sometimes, our expectations can hurt us- like if you have really high expectations for a for potential romantic partner. I’m not talking high expectations like you’re not willing to settle. I’m talking about when your expectation list is so long or so specific that it causes you to not get involved with people because you never find anyone good enough or it causes you to end a relationship at the first sign of conflict because you don’t think it should be that way. That’s when expectations can mess with us a bit.

Expectations can also cause conflict when you’re in a good relationship. It could be because you expect different things or because one of you copes better with the expectation violation or because you both didn’t expect something to happen and neither of you know how to cope with the violation… separately or together. 

And I’m not talking about serious, dire life events that shock you to your core. I’m talking about everyday bullshit. Like I didn’t expect that I would have to wipe my kids’ butts years after they were potty trained. Why doesn’t anyone talk about that?! I think most people think, diapers for 2-3 years and then when they’re potty trained, you’re done. You’re not. You still have to help wipe. For. Years. One of our kids went to kindergarten not knowing how to effectively wipe his ass. So he just didn’t.

Whether it’s about marriage or parenthood, our expectations don’t always match up with reality. And this can cause conflict, resentment, or even break-up or divorce. And let me tell you… kids seriously complicate things.

So what can you do? 

The first thing you can do is get more realistic expectations. Talk to people who have experienced what you hope to and ask them what it’s really like. Tell them to be real with you. You know, a lot of times, we think to ourselves, “I don’t remember my parents having this hard of a time with us when we were kids.” Well guess what- you didn’t know your parents when they had small children. By the time you were actually noticing their parenting skills (or lack thereof), you were way past the newborn baby, toddler, or probably even elementary school age. 

Second, avoid creating expectations based on the media. Disney hasn’t taught us much about what real life is like. End of story.

Third, talk about what you expect with others and listen to what people who are involved in your life expect. Especially your partner. What do you both think dating will be like? What will marriage be like? What will parenthood be like? 

And lastly, and this is probably the most important part. Be flexible when things don’t turn out the way you expected. Understand that everyone is different. Every relationship is different. And every kid is different.

Life doesn’t always turn out the way we expected, but trying to figure it all out with the ones we love is totally worth it.


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