The Main Cause of Relationship Problems

Relationships are important. We are social creatures after all, and the people we choose to spend our time with are important parts of our lives. This makes it very challenging if we are on the outs with someone we care about. More often than not, there is one core cause of all relational strife: expectations. Or rather, failure to have our expectations met.

We all have expectations. Big ones and little ones. We even have these of strangers. We may have the expectation that everyone drives the posted speed limit. Or, that when a cashier invites the “next person in line,” it doesn’t mean the first person who can get there. We expect things of our spouses, friends, family, and neighbors. We all have (what we believe to be) reasonable beliefs of proper behavior. To complicate things further, we attach meaning to these expectations.

If someone lets us down, we aren’t only disappointed, but we give a reason to it. For example, you expect your close friends to remember your birthday. Then, when your birthday has come and gone, and you haven’t heard from one of your nearest and dearest, you are disappointed AND hurt. You believe that if you truly care about someone, you remember their birthday. Meanwhile, your forgetful friend cares very deeply about you, but, personally, doesn’t much care about birthdays one way or the other. It never occurs to her that she may have hurt you by not making certain she remembered your birthday.

The next question, then, is how do we prevent our expectations from breaking down our relationships?  Here are a few tips:

  • Make your expectations known – Do not expect that people will just intuitively know what you need. Spell it out.
  • Share the meaning you’ve attached to your expectations – If you need quality time with your spouse at the end of each day and you believe this means you are valued and loved, be clear that this is how important this time is to you.
  • Understand your expectations may be completely different from others – For example, I have a friend who despises getting gift cards as a gift. She feels they are impersonal and it hurts her to think we couldn’t take a little extra time and thought to get her something special and unique. I, on the other hand, like getting gift cards. We both have totally different expectations, but we took the time to discover these differences.
  • Most expectations are coming from a place of love or fear – Rarely do people have expectations with the intent to be difficult or hurtful. A parent who withholds love, may have done so because they expected the world was hard and wanted to prepare you to be tough. Or a loved one avoids appearing vulnerable because they expect to get hurt if they are.
  • Consider your expectations – Have you ever considered what your expectations are? It may be a very eye-opening exercise. When you actually think about what your expectations are and the meaning you’ve attached to them, you may start to question if you really want to hold on to them. (VIP Subscribers get a PDF download of this exercise – Subscribe today to get yours – It’s Free)

Next time you get in a disagreement, before jumping immediately to the emotion of it, take a step back and try to consider how both your expectations, and those of the other person, could be contributing. It’s much more difficult to feel hurt or angry when you actually understand where another person is coming from. It doesn’t mean you agree, only that you understand. It is this mindset that will prevent problems in the future.

In the comments section, share how understanding your own or someone else’s expectations have helped improve a relationship in your life.

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  1. oh my, april. i feel as if this was written precisely for ME today! thank you for these loving-yet-rational tips, and for the challenge to look at my own thoughts and beliefs (a slight shift in how i may have been viewing the “problem”).

  2. I cannot agree more with your points on make your expectations known and share the meaning you’ve attached to your expectations. Both points make me believe that many relationship problems also caused by communication problems. Many people just expect their friends and loved ones understand their needs and expectation, and they make assumptions when they do not. I have friends asking me “can you tell me why my friend/girlfriend does that?” In fact, we need to communicate so that we can understand each other’s better, and until then we can build strong relationship with others and minimize the problems. Thanks for another great post April!

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