Monday, February 1, 2010

Expectation management

When people get into a relationship, there are often expectations that come into play. It could be fairly reasonable things, like communicating well, or being honest, considering physical safety, or doing what you say you'll do. Or, it could be things that are much more subjective, like a particular style of relationship, sharing the same priorities, or feeling the same way about the connection. When things get rough is when those expectations are "violated" by the person to whom they are being attached, who is often either oblivious at the differences in perspective, or hasn't made any agreement to live according to those expectations.

So, how does one deal with that? One of the ideas I've seen espoused is to dispense with expectations entirely. Frankly, while this sounds good in theory, it seems a bit less connected to reality to be workable. Expectations have some value, as long as they are MUTUAL. They can provide a more predictable landscape within a relationship, which ties in with a sense of safety. Mutual expectations can give direction to a relationship, as people are able to work towards goals and shared perspectives. The key is that word "mutual". Projecting your expectations on others may work out for a while, as coincidence and NRE play together to buffer differences, but there will come a point where, unless you actually agree on what expectations are part of your relationship, things will hit a speed bump of potentially monumental proportions.

For example: If someone is more community poly and they are dating someone who is more free-agent poly, there are likely to be some significant differences in desired relationship parameters. One partner who wants to be part of an extended family isn't likely to be happy at being kept in the background by someone who would rather maintain a "separate, but equal" expectation for their dating life. Unless this is brought out into the open, examined, and a mutually acceptable solution is negotiated, things are about to get bumpy! Personally, I would rather have expectations to live up to, rather than down to, but I'd like to know what I'm shooting for as well!

Another option for expectation management is to apply expectations only to oneself. This may look like knowing: who you want to be, what you want to give to others, and holding good solid boundaries on your emotions. It can be very challenging when there are differences in emotional intensity, for example, but as long as all concerned are sharing where they are at, the opportunities to put expectations onto someone else are minimal. This has been one that I've fallen down on in the past, and keep on my radar screen regularly as a skill that isn't automatic for me.

However you choose to handle expectation management, do handle it! This isn't one of those things that is just going to go away if you fail to recognize it, and it is something that can have deep and lasting impact on your relationships.

1 comment:

Dave said...

To me, expectations are a sign that you are engaged and have wants/desires. I can't imagine how someone could be engaged with someone and NOT have expectations. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm saying that it would be so far outside the way that I work that I don't know what that would look like.

A big part of negotiating a relationship is to uncover the latent/a priori expectations that aren't so obvious. Normally, through a series of early dating conversations, each person involved says some of their typical "about me" stuff and ask key questions. There are things that we have learned (often through trial and error) that have bitten us in the ass in the past, so we bring it up early on in the conversation to avoid making the same assumptions again.

The thing is, for every expectation that we have unearthed, there are (usually) several others that we have not made explicit because they appear to be shared (on the surface), or they simply aren't things that we have ever been forced to question.

Self-knowledge is critical here. The more that you know about yourself, the more soul searching that you have done, the more experience you have had with other relationships, the more accurately and effectively you can present yourself and your expectations.

I see the failure to meet expectations to be the primary cause of problems in relationships, professional, romantic, or otherwise. Assuming we all have each others best interests at heart, assuming we are all earnest and trying to be good to one another, we each start building a relationship. The problem is, we might be building very different relationships on our respective sides, and not realize it for some time due to mismatched terminology.

This begs several question, "Hey, why were you doing that? Are you betraying me? Are you trying manipulate me into being what you want? Don't you respect my needs?"

It's possible that there could be malice. I'm not saying that everyone does have their partner's best interest in mind, but there is plenty of room for problems even if they do approach the situation altruistically. It can be a lack of self-knowledge, causing them to sign up for something they aren't actually interested in, or it can be a lack of understanding what the other person means when they tell them what they want from the relationship.

Sharing stories from previous relationships, using descriptive language to express what you are looking for, and giving examples (from peers or popular media) are all methods for making sure that when I say, “I'm looking for a 'community-style poly relationship',” that everyone involved has the same picture in mind as I do when I said it.

It can feel silly at times, and I will often apologize, but I tell people, “I'm sorry, I promise I'm not talking down to you, but bear with me for a moment while I say something that is probably obvious...”. I can think of several times when I have led off a topic of conversation with that phrase and ended up floored when the other person let me know that they had no idea that I had meant what I intended. They had a very different view of what I thought I had clearly communicated, even though we had significant history between us.

This stuff is tricky and worth getting right, imo.