How Expectations Set Us Up for Trouble
When we look back on our early romance, we note how quick we were to trust each other, even recklessly so. We dived into the relationship with ready abandon and little thought for the risks of rejection or disappointment.
Since then, our trust levels have strengthened in many areas, and declined in others, as we’ve experienced ups and downs in our relationship.
It leads us to ponder: what builds trust between couples? Or more importantly, what breaks it?
Explicit or Implicit?
One interesting idea is the role of expectations. We bring all sorts of expectations to our marriage. Some of these are reasonable and legitimate. Some are even explicitly vowed at the wedding such as sexual fidelity and wealth sharing.
These explicit expectations are generally well understood by couples and they willingly make promises to fulfil them. When these promises are broken, there is a devastating breach of trust.
However, most expectations are implicit. They are never explicitly expressed nor promised. A good example is the expectation that our spouse will listen to us.
We assume that when we promise to ‘love and honour’ each other, it includes listening, kindness, care and support, but it’s not explicitly defined.
That leaves it open to interpretation. What one of us thinks is reasonable, the other thinks is inadequate or, conversely, excessive.
For example, Francine often processes her thoughts verbally. She likes being able to talk through issues with a listening, non-judgemental ear.
For Byron, being expected to listen without a purpose or helping to move towards a conclusion is frustrating. He feels disrespected when she rejects his input and she feels unloved when he avoids conversations out of frustration.
What seems simple, in practice can be quite complicated for couples when their expectations of each other are implicit, poorly defined and changing over time.
Such interactions erode our trust. We interpret our spouse as unreliable, selfish or uncaring. The other sees the expectant spouse as demanding, unreasonable and judgemental.
It’s the perfect breeding ground for trouble whether it manifests as arguments or sullen withdrawal. Both are right, and both are wrong in these situations.
They are right to have expectations of each other, but wrong to assume the other automatically knows how this translates. They are right to interpret ‘love and honour’ to mean the other will work towards meeting their needs, but wrong to assume that the other interprets it the same way.
Reversing the Trend
One obvious way to address this destructive dynamic is to make as many of our implicit expectations explicit; but not in a demanding way. So how do we do that effectively?
We need to understand ourselves and the other; so exploring our different perspectives and motivations is vital.
Byron is happy to be a ‘non-judgemental listening ear’ to Francine, but he needs her to be explicit that this is what she is seeking. Instead of blaming Byron for not listening, Francine needs to own that she sometimes isn’t clear about what she wants from him when she starts a complex conversation.
For his part, Byron needs to remember that listening to Francine is a powerful way to communicate his care for her. He can help by seeking clarification when he’s unsure of what she needs.
Over time, we can learn from these patterns, especially if we help each other understand them.
As we get better in establishing this rhythm of need, outreach, response, support – our trust deepens. We learn to anticipate each other’s needs, recognise the cues and adjust our response to what we understand will be supportive.