The Subtle Trap of Expectations

A lot of the work I do with individuals, couples, teams and organizations revolves around the vast difference between having an expectation of someone versus having an agreement with them.  In my experience, a large amount of dysfunction within marriages, friendships, families, teams and organizations is caused by this very thing.  If you did an inventory of all the relationships that have not gone the distance in your life, most likely one of the root causes of that being the case was you had expectations of each other but no agreements.  I know that has been the case in my life.  Why?

Because having expectations of someone without their agreement will almost always result in resistance, which then turns to resentment which then turns to disengagement.

I have never met a person who likes having expectations put on them that they didn’t agree to.  Did you like it when your parents did that to you, or your friend, client, boss or spouse?  Were you aching to live into them, even though you didn’t agree to them?  Most people would say no, or more accurately, hell no.  And that’s just on the receiving end.  As for you as the “giver”, well, if the person doesn’t live into your expectations, the one’s they never agreed to and often don’t even know about, there’s only one outcome possible, upset and disappointment. Sound familiar?  Resentment, disappointment and upset are not known for producing great results between friends, family members, business associates or co-workers.  And those feelings are so avoidable if you are willing to slow down and get an agreement from someone regarding an expectation you have of them.

I want to be clear, I love having expectations of others, or them of me……as long as they’re agreed to.  Setting clear expectations is very useful provided those expectations are agreed to by all parties concerned.

And the reason getting an agreement is so important is because agreements, by their very nature, create buy-in and they create a sense of accountability.

In my experience, most people want to be held accountable, even when they say they don’t (that includes your children).  And most people do not like breaking agreements.  But, they feel just the opposite about living into someone’s expectations…..that they didn’t agree to.  Which would you rather have in your relationships, your team or organization, resistance or buy-in?

I could fill an entire book of examples of where this all too common phenomenon occurs.  I’ve certainly been guilty of having expectations of someone without their agreement countless times, always with the same outcome.  I’ve also been on the receiving end and it too produced a predictable response.  For the sake of brevity I will illuminate one area where having expectations of each other vs. having agreements usually has negative consequences – romantic relationships/marriage.

In my experience, a lot of romantic relationships go south around this issue, specifically as it relates to money, sex life, time spent together, communication, conflict resolution and parenting.  You have expectations of each other around these sensitive topics but you have no agreements.  Some of you may be thinking, but creating agreements around these things seems so sterile, so unromantic, so planned.  Shouldn’t they just know what I’m expecting?  Shouldn’t they just want to live in to my expectations….because they love me?  Ummm, not so much. In fact, it’s probably just the opposite.  The more you expect of them, without their agreement, the more resentment and resistance you will create in the relationship/marriage.

I’d rather create an agreement around how much time we spend together, or how we communicate. or how we resolve conflict then just expect things to go a certain way without any agreement. The same goes for sex life, money management and parenting decisions.  And those are just the big things.  The reality is a lot of upset or resentment is created around simple things like the dishes, or cleaning, or cooking, or yard work or even taking out the trash.  We have expectations of who’s responsible for what but no actual agreement.  And when the trash doesn’t get taken out or the dishes remain undone, or the meal isn’t cooked there is only one outcome, some degree of upset and resentment, all because there is no actual agreement about who’s responsible for what and by when.

Let me give you one more, simple example.  Soon a lot of college students will be coming home for the summer.  In most homes this is initially viewed as a good thing; a time to reconnect and a time to celebrate.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always turn out that way and one of the primary reasons is both the parents and the child have expectations of how that’s going to go, but no actual agreements around things like getting a job, curfew, cleaning responsibilities, food, use of the cars, communicating whereabouts, etc..  So, within a few short weeks or even days the wheels come off track as resentment, disappointment and upset builds from both sides. Suddenly, instead of celebrating, there is bickering and fighting and the whole summer turns into one giant shit show. And it can all be so easily avoided if everyone took the time to make agreements around some basic rules (expectations) concerning how it was going to go for the summer.  To be clear, (and I’m speaking from the the parental side),  I am not asking if you like these rules, that’s not all that relevant;  I’m asking do you agree to adhere to them so that I can count on you.

college kids home

Making agreements with loved ones, friends, clients, employees and teammates takes time, thoughtfulness and a willingness to slow down just a little.  It is so much easier to just expect things of those around you.  It’s easier but in my experience, it’s far less effective in creating relationships that are healthy and fulfilling.

Are you running your life by expectations? 

Would you be willing to create agreements instead?

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