Are Expectations in a Relationship Healthy?

How setting and communicating healthy relationship expectations can keep couples happy

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, expectations in a relationship can be healthy 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, respect, loyalty, and emotional support are all basic needs you should expect from your partner. 

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 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?

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. 

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What are reasonable expectations in 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.” 

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

  • Making time for each other

  • Respecting personal boundaries 

“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.”

“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.

“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. 

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, 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. “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. 

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. 

Download the Paired app and complete Dr. Terri Orbuch’s “Unrealistic Expectations” exercise.

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