When a relationship is shifting from casual to serious, there comes a moment when it’s necessary to discuss each person’s expectations for the future. Expectations, as I define them, are the aspects of your future you strongly believe will happen (as opposed to dreams, which may or may not come true).
Expectations are reflections of your closely-held beliefs about where your life is going. Expectations, when not met, can cause a grief that often surpasses the grief of not achieving a dream. Because they are so important — and can be so painful when not met — every couple should get to know each other’s expectations before becoming completely committed.
Below are four tips for getting the expectation conversation started, and for getting it back on track if you stumble upon something unexpected.
1. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Many couples who are getting serious have discussed the nut-and-bolts of their future — where they want to live, whether or not they want to have kids — but just as many gloss over the more subtle expectations embedded in these topics. To get at these more subtle expectations, ask open-ended questions, such as:
How would you want to raise your kid?
How would you expect us to handle our finances?
How do you want me to support you when you’re going through a hard time?
When you first ask your partner these questions, you’ll likely get a resounding “Huh?” That’s because it’s often weird at first. But not only is weird healthy, weird is what you’re going for! Weird means you’re covering territory you haven’t before.
And the beauty of weird conversations is: your partner really doesn’t know what the “right” answer is. They won’t know what you want to hear, so they’ll have no choice but to speak their truth.
2. Put a Weight on It
Once you start asking open-ended questions, you’ll discover you and your partner have some differing expectations about the future. Hopefully the conversation won’t unearth polar opposite opinions, but some variance is inevitable. So what should you do if your partner expects something from the future you disagree with? Put a weight on it.
Put a weight on it means: identify how much that expectation really matters to you (and to them). Rate on a scale of 1-10 how much you really care that this expectation works out the way you envisioned it — “1” meaning you actually don’t care at all and “10” meaning it’s of essential importance to you. Have your partner do the same. Then share your ratings and discuss.
You’ll find that it’s actually pretty rare for both partners to find the same expectation essentially important. Take, for example, a boyfriend’s expectation that his girlfriend will quit her job after they get married, but she’d rather keep working. He may only rate this a “6” in importance because he realizes this expectation is based on his parent’s example more than anything else. She may rate this a “10” because she considers her work an essential part of her identity.
By putting a weight on it, they’ve uncovered that this issue matters to her much more than it does to him, allowing her vision to take precedence.
3. Find the Overlap
If you find that you both really do care strongly about a certain expectation, it’s time to “find the overlap.” Finding the overlap means shelving the aspects where you disagree for the moment and building upon the aspects where you do agree. There’s almost always some aspect of an issue that two people can agree on.
For example, let’s say a couple is planning a wedding. He has always expected to have a rustic wedding and she has always envisioned an elegant affair. While these expectations may seem contradictory at first, if they dig in there’s surely something they can find in common.
Maybe he pictures “rustic” to mean outside and she can see “simple elegance” in a starry sky. The two of them just stumbled upon the perfect “Night Under the Stars” wedding theme… by finding the overlap.
4. Shift to Dreams
If you find yourselves at a major stand-still in regards to expectations, shift the conversation to dreams. Expectations are about what you assume will happen in the future, but dreams are about what you would secretly love to have happen in the future.
Shifting the focus to dreams can provide great perspective. For example, if you’ve both always had a dream of sailing all seven seas of the world – and can recognize the deep emotional bond you two share over this dream – it doesn’t matter too much who’s expected to do the dishes, does it?
Try out these simple tips and you’ll find that the conversations that flow from them are always valuable. You may discover something you definitely need to know before getting into the relationship too deeply. Or you’ll find even more evidence that you’re a perfect fit!
Happy couple photo available from Shutterstock