Expectations and Boundaries

A couple of months ago, we got into a discussion with Rob’s sister about “expectations”. There has been some ongoing issues in Rob’s family, and his sister pointed out to us that we had “expectations” of people and that was the problem. We needed to set aside our expectations and just go with the flow. Perhpas we would be able to come to a better place because no expectations were in place. I think the theory goes along the line of “No expectations, no disappointment”.

It was a fascinating idea and Rob and I had lots of discussions about it. I decided to spend some time thinking, pondering and yes, researching the “No Expectations” vs “Expectations” theories.

I discovered that as with everything else, there are two very strong and compelling camps about Expectations. Obviously, everyone builds their own experiences based on their own life history and reality – so that is always the first thing to consider. If you have been burned by expectations in the past, then you might be closer to accepting the “No Expectations” camp. However, if setting expectations has always served you well, then obviously, you would be closer to that camp.

I also discovered that there are differences in how I defined expectations compared to others. Often what I defined as an expectation others defined as “needs”, “standards” or “boundaries”. So while many claimed to have “No Expectations”, people did have some sort of boundaries in place.

The two schools of thought look something like this (in the simplest terms):

The argument for having “No Expectations”: Having expectations of ourselves and others places an enormous amount of pressure on both ourselves and others. With expectations, we run the risk of disappointment. We may also run the risk of not achieving what we think we can when we place the expectations on ourselves, or the risk of ruining relationships with others that could have otherwise thrived – and been even greater than we could have ever imagined. Expectations could limit the potential, create feelings of inadequacy and can cripple your own growth or someone else’s. If we have no expectations, we open the doors to the universe and anything can happen. We avoid disappointments and embrace what is meant to happen.

This is a very compelling argument. Although I think it’s funny that the “No expectations” argument assumes the expectation of “no disappointment”. So really, there are expectations about not having expectations, no?

The flip side is the argument for having expectations. If we don’t have expectations of ourselves, perhaps we will be prone to accepting less than we might be able to achieve with a little extra belief and push. Or, if you open your non-judgmental heart and accept whatever actions others deem appropriate regardless of whether these have a negative impact on yourself or them or others – will that make for a good relationship either? Does having no expectations allow relationships to become unhealthy (selfish, perhaps abusive even) and create more of the “it’s all about me” culture that is detrimental to a relationship? The positive is that creating expectations could push people to be their best and invest in a relationship.

Both these camps seem to have some compelling arguments!

I think the word “expectations” carries a lot of “expectations” and can also be a misnomer. Perhaps those who use words like “needs” or “standards” or “boundaries” are on to something.

I do think having expectations can be a slippery slope for any relationship. But, I also think having no expectations can be limiting for many relationships.

I take a simple, basic example. I am turning 40 next year (eek!). If I have an expectation that Rob is going to plan a surprise (something like a vacation or a cruise somewhere, with all of my close friends – because of course he knows I would love that and I would – and in my ideal world it would happen – LOL!), I might be disappointed with him if he doesn’t follow through with that, and disappointed with my friends if they didn’t do anything either. If I have no expectations, then I would never be disappointed. I should then be happy with whatever celebration – or not – that he plans. No expectations – no disappointment.

But here’s my problem. I would not be happy with no acknowledgement from my husband and close friends. And yes, essentially, that would be my problem. I could pretend that I had no expectations, and be happy with whatever half hearted celebration they deemed appropriate for me, but it would still hurt. I think having unrealistic expectations of a surprise cruise is just that – unrealistic. But, is it wrong to have some expectation that I am worthy of my husband and close friends acknowledging my birthday? Is not having any expectations setting an expectation in itself: one that says you don’t need to be mindful of me because I don’t need or want your mindfulness?

When I have a relationship with someone, I do think that there needs to some expectations. Perhaps though, we shouldn’t call it an expectation. Perhaps instead there needs to be communication and an agreement between two people of some minimum “standards”. We all have needs, and I have every right to express my needs. And that is a key point – I need to express my needs and not assume that someone else should just immediately know them. Of course, the other person has every right not to fulfill my needs. I can’t place an expectation on anyone per se, but in a relationship, such as marriage, there is an agreement between us of things that we might try to do for each other. I guess that agreement can be different for each person. So, perhaps calling it an “agreement” or a “standard” between us is better than calling it an “expectation”.

When we made the agreement to be married, with that came certain standards that we agreed upon. For sure for us, we have the standard agreement of fidelity and loyalty. We also have a standard that we both strive to communicate our needs, and then think of each other to help each other fulfill our needs. It is not his responsibility to fulfill my needs, and if I have that expectation I may be disappointed. But we do have an agreed upon standard that we strive to uphold. Disappointment is inevitable I think – which is why we have forgiveness in our lives. With or without expectations, disappointment is inevitable as we are fallible. It is how we deal with that disappointment. I think that if the constant result in our lives is disappointment, we have the option of trying to put aside all our expectations and then never have to feel the pain of disappointment. But perhaps constant disappointment in a relationship is the universe’s way of letting us know that the relationship is a not a healthy one to start with. Get rid of the expectations, or seek a new relationship?

Expectations are values we place on other people – so that might be where the problem lies. We absolutely cannot control people, and cannot make them act a certain way that is for sure. However, our own personal standards are values we place on ourselves. And that ties into boundaries as well. Those, I believe we need to set for ourselves, to ensure we are being true to ourselves.

Having “No expectations” does seem to imply that I have to accept everything people do to me – or not do. I have to be non-judgmental and take what I am given with no disappointment. While I cannot place expectations on other people’s behaviour, I certainly have boundaries of things that I cannot and will not accept. These boundaries would then still have to be dealt with and negotiated in our relationship. Meaning, I can’t place an expectation that Rob will throw me a surprise party, but I certainly can have a boundary that if my husband forgets to acknowledge my birthday, I’m not going to just say “It is my problem to deal with because it was unfair of me to put expectations on him in the first place”. What my reaction might look like will depend on our “emotional bank account” and how vested we are in our relationship with each other. Forgiveness might come easily, or it may be a more uphill battle.

As a parent, expectations are a very tricky thing too. There is huge debate on this. If expectations are set too low – your kids may end up feeling like you don’t believe in them, or they may undershoot their potential, or they may just not end up trying things for themselves that are challenging. They could also end up accepting treatment that is not respectful and end up feeling quite worthless.

If expectations are set too high, then you may run the risk of them feeling like they can never measure up, that they are a constant disappointment, that they aren’t good enough. They could become too demanding of others around them, or feel rejected from others around them. This too can lead to feeling quite worthless.

So again, is there a happy medium? Do we not have to have some level of expectation to provide them with some direction? Or again, perhaps we should just use the words “standards or boundaries” to avoid the negative connotation “expectations” seems to have.

Professor Randy Pausch in his “Last Lecture” speech, talked about how he didn’t want to set the bar for his students, as he might actually be preventing them from achieving what their full potential was as he might set the bar too low for their ingenious minds. However, he certainly had a minimum bar set – or else they would fail the course.

So, perhaps there is a minimum bar that needs to be set for our kids. I don’t “expect” my kids to get straight “A’s”, but I certainly think there is a certain work ethic that they should strive for, in order for them to achieve whatever their potential may be. As a parent, it is my job to help them develop and internalize this standard for themselves. It is also my job to help them identify and develop boundaries of how to treat others and the kind of treatment to accept. I want them to know that they are precious human spirits, and do deserve the respect and love that is available. They don’t have to accept anything that anyone gives them. In turn, they need to give out the respect and love that they are capable of giving and that other people deserve. I don’t really want to teach my children to have no “expectations” (or boundaries or standards whatever you want to call it)of anyone! I think that is teaching a rather pessimistic view of life and of relationships. I want to teach them to shoot for the moon, and that it is ok if you land in the stars. I don’t want to teach them not to shoot for anything so they won’t be disappointed wherever they end up; they should just hope that they get to the moon or beyond anyway.

I guess “expectations” are also dependent on the type of relationship you have with someone. For sure, having any expectations of an ex-spouse is a huge set up for disappointment. That is a clear cut case of “no expectations – no disappointment”. Having expectations on a “new” relationship could also be a recipe for disaster. Or not. I think sometimes we end up dating the wrong person, or working on a “dead” relationship because we didn’t have high enough expectations for ourselves. We let ourselves be treated poorly because it is not fair to place expectations on others. But should we not have some standards for ourselves? Perhaps it is helpful to also have no expectations on someone that you really don’t care all that much about anyways.

Maybe we need to have certain expectations in certain relationships, depending on the nature of the relationship, the history of the relationship (this is a very important factor), the meaning or value of the relationship.

However, having no “expectations” for everything can be very limiting. In the relationships that I value the most, I want to know their needs, their values and their desires. I want to help them achieve these things. In turn, I want to be able to communicate my needs, wants and desires and be high enough on their priority list that they are interested in helping me fulfill them. There are inherent agreements set in relationships, that if broken, either need repair, reshaping, or perhaps abandoning. There are boundaries of respect that need to be respected!

So, as you can see it is a complicated thing. There are a lot of factors to consider and that come into play. I think unrealistic expectations are damaging, but no expectations are just as damaging.

I do know though that I want to be engaged in relationships where both parties are interested in giving 100%. No, I can’t force anyone to do that. But then, I can choose who I engage in relationships with. Perhaps expectations is the wrong word, perhaps there is a happy medium between high and low expectations. I certainly think there are boundaries and standards and agreements that need to be established for a healthy relationship to grow and flourish.

Sorry for the length. Much to contemplate:)


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