Are Expectations in a Relationship Healthy?

How setting and communicating healthy relationship expectations can keep couples happy
on January 17, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Expectations in a relationship are a contentious topic in the dating world. Some people think that setting expectations will only lead to disappointment, while others believe they’re the key to a happy baseline in a relationship. The truth is, that expectations in a relationship can be healthy, but only if you approach them correctly. 

When it comes to relationship expectations, American psychologist and relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman believes couples should strive for “good enough”. Love, mutual respect, loyalty, and emotional support are all basic needs you should expect from your partner in a long-term relationship. 

Never having any arguments, expecting your partner to read your mind, expecting sex every day, or thinking your partner will take care of all the household chores are not just high expectations, but unrealistic expectations in a relationship.  

So, what are healthy expectations in a relationship? How do you know if you’re asking for too much from your partner? How do you know if you’re asking for too little? More importantly, how do you manage expectations in a relationship to ensure mutual satisfaction and not disappointment?

Key Takeaways
  • Establishing reasonable expectations in a relationship is crucial as it guides how partners fulfill each other's emotional and physical needs. This sets a healthy tone for the relationship.
  • It's beneficial to have clear standards, but unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment. The key is differentiating between what is reasonable and what sets impossible standards.
  • Expectations such as mutual trust, honest communication, empathy, conflict resolution, accountability, respect for personal boundaries, and support in tough times are considered reasonable and often non-negotiable. These create a stable, comfortable relationship environment.
  • If expectations are not met, it's advised to have open conversations and, if necessary, seek professional help. This prevents resentment and mismatched expectations about significant life decisions.

What are expectations in a relationship? 

It’s completely normal to set certain reasonable expectations in a relationship. Similar to your non-negotiables or your dealbreakers, these can set the tone for a healthy relationship — as there are clear guideposts for how your partner can help fulfill your emotional (and physical) needs. 

Although it’s unfair to expect the world of your partner, expectations in a relationship can foster relationship satisfaction. They can shape the dynamic of your relationship and ensure both your and your partner’s needs are being met. That being said, it’s important to know the difference between healthy expectations and setting impossible standards. 

What are unreasonable expectations in a relationship?

In relationships, it’s not a crime to have high standards. Knowing what you want is often an advantage in the world of dating, as you don’t settle since your clear dealbreakers are already defined. 

However, unhealthy expectations can leave you feeling let down and disappointed in romantic relationships as your expectations inevitably go unmet. 

In her research, therapist and relationship expert Dr. Terri Orbuch found that the most significant cause of unhappiness in relationships was frustration caused by unrealistic expectations — when you think something “should” happen in your relationship, but it doesn’t. Her solution is not only to discuss expectations as a couple but also to understand better what your own expectations are.

“Setting and communicating expectations in relationships helps keep both partners accountable for their actions [and] can bring awareness and understanding of what you and your partner need,” says Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta, a licensed counselor at Choosing Therapy.

“This sets the tone and foundation of your relationship. Focusing on this helps to fill those wants and needs and you learn together how to compromise in a healthy way.”

Although it’s unfair to expect the world of your partner, expectations in a relationship can foster relationship satisfaction. They can shape the dynamic of your relationship and ensure both your and your partner’s needs are being met. That being said, it’s important to know the difference between healthy expectations and setting impossible standards. 

What are reasonable expectations of a partner?

Many of us enter a relationship thinking that our partner should be everything to us, but no one person can meet all our needs.   

“Sadly, many of us did not get the attunement, mirroring, and emotional safety we should have growing up, so we might enter a relationship thinking all those needs are now going to get met by our beloved,” explains Evie Shafner, a licensed marriage and family therapist. 

“So what are reasonable expectations? Maybe the first and most important one is that your partner won’t always be able to meet your needs and to know that you can manage that,” she says. “Your partner can’t be your parent, it’s unrealistic to think they will do things the way you do, or feel about things the way you do — and that needs to be ok.” 

There are a number of things in a relationship that should be non-negotiable, such as mutual trust and honest communication, alongside some more personal reasonable expectations that you may desire in a partner. 

Some healthy relationship expectations include: 

  • Trusting each other 

  • Being kind to one another

  • Showing empathy

  • Being willing to resolve conflict when it arises 

  • Taking accountability for actions

  • Spending time together and consistently making time for each other

  • Respecting personal boundaries 

  • Support during tough times 

  • Understanding each other’s point of view 

“The difference between reasonable and unrealistic expectations is seen in how you feel when they are set,” explains Dr. Gulotta. “Reasonable expectations may make you feel comfortable and stable in the relationship whereas unrealistic expectations may make you feel anxious and limited in your relationship.”

When you’re embarking on a new relationship, it’s good to know what you need in order to sustain a healthy partnership that is beneficial to your overall mental health and well-being. However, when you’re looking for a significant other, it’s important to remember that you can’t rely on them for everything and that you shouldn’t expect them to ‘complete’ you in some way. 

“If your partner isn’t meeting your expectations, first talk with them and have an open and honest conversation,” she says. “You can have check-ins to identify your needs and share them with your partner. When you feel you have tried to work with your partner and you feel stuck, you can then seek professional help,” she adds.

Without these conversations, couples can find themselves in a relationship where they have mismatched expectations. For example, you could have expectations around your future together that involve kids or buying a home, but if this was never discussed — it may not align with your partner’s views. 

This lack of mutual understanding could hinder your relationship down the road, leading to the build-up of resentment or other negative emotions. A simple conversation outlining your relationship expectations could therefore save you a lot of time and energy!

“If you’re with a partner who doesn’t meet most of the basics of a good relationship — trust, kindness, empathy — if they’re harsh in responding to your bids for connection, and are not willing to work on it, that’s a bottom line moment,” adds Shafner. 

If these basic expectations aren’t met (which revolve around human decency!), then there is no room for a healthy relationship to grow. While they’re trying to knock your confidence and self-esteem, you’re not asking for too much by expecting decent and honorable treatment. Trust us. 

How to set expectations in a relationship 

  1. Figure out your expectations. A lot of the expectations we have around relationships and dating come from outside sources, such as social media and pop culture. So the first step would be to ask yourself what your expectations are in a relationship. “Take some time to really get clear on what your relationship expectations are,” says Shafner. “Know that we all have them.” It helps to think of expectations as needs, rather than demands — what do you need to feel happy in this relationship? 

  2. Communicate your expectations. “At the beginning of a relationship, we have stars in our eyes and feel like we have met the person who is going to meet all our needs,” says Shafner. “But at a certain point, getting clear on how your partner visualizes a happy relationship is so important.” You shouldn’t assume that your partner inherently knows what all your wants and needs are, so if you have certain expectations you should be upfront and discuss them. So, try spending less time expecting your partner to read your mind, and more time communicating what your needs are.

  3. Be realistic. Psychologist Jim McNulty found that having high relationship standards only works if couples can live up to them. His advice was to match your expectations to what you and your partner can offer. 

  4. Be open to change. “Expectations in a relationship can be fluid. They can change over time,” says Shafner. As your relationship evolves, so can your expectations. Getting married, starting a family, switching careers, going through hard times, or other life transitions often come with updated relationship expectations. “Give time and space for things to change, and always practice safe conversations,” adds Shafner. 

  5. Compromise. Relationship expectations are completely subjective, so it’s only natural for you and your partner to have different expectations. Rather than demanding that your expectations be met, work with your partner to understand their expectations and your non-negotiables — and vice versa. “Become curious about what your partner’s expectations are,” says Shafner. “Sometimes it’s all their way and sometimes it’s all your way — it’s not a contest. Give each other the benefit of the doubt.”

Expectations in a relationship can act as guidelines for what you and your partner need to feel loved, supported, and happy in your relationship. With the right guidelines in place, it’s easier for you to build trust, and establish a relationship dynamic that works for you both. 

You may feel like you don’t want to rock the boat by talking about expectations with your partner, but expressing your needs (and having them met) allows you to grow closer as a couple. Although your partner can’t fulfill every single one of them, setting realistic expectations creates a healthy foundation for your relationship. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the pros and cons of having expectations in a relationship?

    Expectations are often viewed with skepticism, as people fear being seen as ‘high-maintenance’ or as ‘too demanding’. However, when you set healthy expectations and advocate for transparency with your partner — there is no pros and cons list to consider!
  • How do you answer relationship expectations?

    If someone communicates their clear relationship expectations to you, it can be difficult to know how to react — especially if you’re early on in the relationship. In some cases, someone may have set the standards, and you don’t know how to fulfill them. While it may be an awkward situation, it’s best to communicate these differences and see if can you reach a collaborative solution.
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