A client recently sent me a blog post about rules versus expectations. It contained a lot of what I agree with. Basically expectations are the general assumptions we make about other people…about how they will behave in certain situations. Things like “my partner won’t try to intentionally harm me” or “when I meet a new person they probably won’t stick a fork in my eye.” Rules are the actual, specific dictates we create like “if you are going to work late you must call and tell me” or “if you are going to spend more than $100 you have to discuss it with me.”
The author made the argument that many times lots of rules are a band-aid approach to really working on and understanding expectations. He suggests that when this happens the relationship is in a “failure-state.” That doesn’t mean the relationship has failed but that it is likely heading that way. I think there are some interesting ideas worth considering in the post but what I am going to focus on is expectations.
Expectations come at many levels. By that I mean we can have expectations of a group of people based on some common factor…such as expecting that people in France speak French. At the other end we may have expectations of a specific person. And we can have expectations at all levels in between…by state, city, ethnicity, gender, education, accent…you name it.
I want to discuss the more intimate levels…relationships with friends, family or romantic partners. That’s where so many problems occur in relationships…when someone isn’t acting consistently with expectations.
Expectations can come from many places. Some of them we develop from interactions with the other person. Our experience with that person has shown us that they repeatedly behavior in a certain way. We come to expect that their behavior will be the same given the same or similar circumstances.
But we don’t always apply expectations to another individual based on direct learning from that person. In fact, we almost always have expectations of others based on the assumption that they are similar to some other person or group that you’ve seen. It is how we navigate meeting new people and getting to know them safely. We have some default set of rules that help guide us.
Another way we learn expectations is from our family of origin as what you’ve heard me call patterns or family patterns. As we grew up with this group of people we started to learn what to expect of others and in turn modified our behavior. Those expectations might be positive or negative. In one family breaking a glass might result in a stern reprimand coupled with an empathetic word. In another it might result in severe punishment. How we expect someone to act towards us if we have an accident…or how we react to them if they do…may be based primarily on this family pattern.
Whatever the pattern we tend to learn them very deeply. That is because when we are young we have less logical capacity to just explain things away. Instead they register at an emotional level that can carry forward into adulthood. That means that we often have expectations of behavior from our childhood that we then start applying to friends and partners. And we may not even be aware of it.
Here is where it can get tricky. We often run into trouble when individuals in a relationship don’t act consistently with expectations. The problem is that expectations can be unmet but it isn’t always clear where the issue really is.
Let’s set aside the aberrations. Those cases where there were odd or unknown circumstances that legitimately impacted behaviors. It is a one time, makes sense why situation. Instead, let’s look a two other ways this can play out.
In one situation one person is intentionally tying to loophole expectations. Oh, I know they expect me to behave this way but I can justify this other behavior in this way. The person knows that they are rationalizing and excuse to do what they want despite knowing what was expected of them. This is a situation that can lead to lots of rules because even though the expectation is there (and maybe clear), rules have to be made to cover the loopholes.
The other way it can happen is when we put expectations on other people when the aren’t aware of the expectations. Let’s say you saw your parents act in a certain way. You might expect your partner to act in the same way even though they may not be aware of your expectation. Then when they act in the way they learned from their parents, you feel hurt/angry/frustrated because they didn’t meet your expectations. But unless you’ve discussed these expectations there is no way for the other person to know you have them. This can also lead to lots of rule setting to address the situation.
I agree that making lots of rules in a relationship can be a sign that something is likely wrong. If people aren’t acting consistently with expectations that is definitely problematic. It is time to sit down and discuss expectations. And don’t make assumptions and try to place blame. Instead have an open, caring conversation and look at both possibilities. That way you can find common ground and eliminate the need to make more rules.