High Expectations in Relationships

 Unworthiness has never been helped by striving – Unknown.

It’s hard not to feel the gravitational pull to excel at life. We are continually bombarded with articles and social media posts about extraordinary achievements. Living an ordinary life can feel like we’re falling short.

When we have high expectations of ourselves, we often hold our partners to similar standards. This can lead us to being critical of our partners, seeing them as less-than because they do not share our values. For example, one of my clients characterized her husband as unmotivated because he preferred to relax on Sundays, rather than tackle their to-do list. If this judgment continues, it can lead to a negative view of the relationship, and wondering whether we have chosen the right partner (John Gottman calls this Negative Sentiment Override).

High expectations can also lead to difficulty tolerating differences of opinion, seeing our way as the only way. When we believe we hold a superior set of standards, we can see our partner as inferior for having a different viewpoint. The downside is that we end up enslaved to our high expectations, living in a lonely tower of judgment.

The other side of high expectations is that we can be easily hurt by our partners. Sometimes we find our partner’s behaviour as hurtful because we would have acted differently. In couples therapy, I often hear one partner say, “I would never do that to you! I value our relationship.” Although this statement feels true, our partner may have a rationale different from ours. Also, our partner may be unaware of how their behaviour impacts others due to their own struggles. The difficulty occurs when we view our partner’s behaviour as a reflection of our worth, and don’t consider other contributing factors.  

Where do high expectations come from? We often learn high expectations from our family of origin. Our caregivers may have over-valued achievement, so we developed an identity based on accomplishment. From an attachment perspective, a child who adopts high expectations is being able to secure love and approval from their caregivers. Often high expectations continue into adulthood, leading to a constant pursuit of accomplishments. Each time we achieve something, we feel temporary satisfaction, followed by emptiness, then the pursuit of another goal.

Life becomes a hamster wheel, leaving us feeling depleted and empty.

High expectations can also result from absent or neglectful caregivers. We can learn to overcompensate for their limitations, making a vow to not repeat their mistakes.

Many years ago I worked with a woman who had high expectations of herself and others. She would constantly bring new projects to our team, and raise her expectations for successful achievement. I remember thinking that nothing I did was ever good enough for her, while also being resentful of the relentless work pace. One day she disclosed that her parents would criticize her if she scored less than 100% on tests in grade school. It’s no wonder she developed high expectations. Experiencing the consequences of her high expectations also encouraged me to evaluate my own high standards, as I experienced the impact from the other side.

If you struggle with high expectations of yourself, chances are you have a critical inner voice. One tool that can be helpful is to develop self-compassion. I also like Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and being comfortable with our imperfections. Like most ongoing issues, we have ups and downs with our progress, but perseverance is key.

 Here are some ideas for adjusting high expectations in relationships:

1. Learn to question your assumptions and expectations. Instead of reacting with criticism toward your partner, try to slow things down and question your expectations. Are they realistic? One of my clients judged his partner because she had not obtained the same career goals as him. However, she was significantly younger, and was working on a number of exciting job opportunities. He asked himself: What would a reasonably productive person have achieved at this point in their career? When he questioned his assumptions, he realized that she was very ambitious, but in her own way.

2. Connect with your own imperfection. Sometimes focusing on the mistakes and limitations of our partner is a way to distract from our own limitations. It can be helpful to ask: When do I make mistakes? What are my limitations? It can also be helpful to view ourselves from the outside and ask ourselves: How would I appreciate my partner to act towards me?

3. Practice gratitude for your partner. It’s very easy to focus on our partner’s limitations, but what about their strengths? What are the reasons you were drawn to them? What do they teach you?

4. Learn to respect and be open to your partner’s point of view. Your partner has an alternative point of view that may bring something helpful to the situation. The challenge is to acknowledge and understand that view, then work toward a compromise.

5. Express your preferences and expectations in a gentle and moderate way. Being in a relationship means working to be relational, and part of that is sharing your thoughts and feelings. Often, if we can soften our approach to expressing our preferences an opinion (rather than a demand), the conversation tends to be much more productive.

6.  Use humour to take yourself less seriously. Being able to take a step back and see the humour of our responses can lighten the stress, and allow other ideas to come to mind.

7. Practice flexibility and choose your battles. It’s easy to become fixated on a small detail and magnify its importance, especially in disagreement with our partner. Ask yourself: Does this detail really matter to me? What sorts of expectations and preferences are draining my energy?

There are many benefits to having high expectations, and moving forward doesn’t mean you have to abandon your standards. If we can take a step back and learn to tolerate difference, we can live a happier life. Relationships provide an opportunity for us to examine the conditioned ways we’ve been living and find a middle path.

Reflection Questions:

  • Where do my high expectations come from?
  • What positive impacts have high expectations had in my life?
  • How have high expectations caused me or my loved ones difficulty?
  • What is the hardest part of letting go of high expectations?