Having unrealistic expectations of your partner is one of the biggest factors in failed relationships, experts believe.

The more reasonable your expectations, the more likely your significant other is to live up to them. Which means you’re less likely to resent them. Linda Wise (51) of Polokwane, Limpopo, and her husband, Johan who died at the age of 53 – learnt this lesson the hard way during their 29-year marriage.

When they were engaged they went for premarital counselling. ‘One assignment had us list 25 expectations we had of our spouse, Linda recalls. I thought I would battle to think of any but they just flowed out of me once I got started. Her expectations included unconditional love, loyalty and transparency. Her fiancé’s expectations were more concrete: he expected her to support his business decisions, to have coffee with him every morning and to tell him she loved him at least once a day.

A few years into their marriage they hit a rough patch when Linda felt he was not helping enough with the children. It was all about expectations: she expected Johan to help more but he didn’t know what was expected of him. So the problems began.

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The solution, Linda realised, was to communicate her expectations. ‘I realised he just didn’t see that I needed help,’ she says. So I started asking him things like, “Honey, will you please fetch the children’s jackets,” and “The car seat needs to be put in the van.” He was more than willing to help I just needed to ask. It really changed my attitude and made my life easier. My husband was my best friend and I miss him every day. The realisation that unmet expectations can be deadly for a relationship recently became a hot topic of discussion after Derek Harvey, an American author and motivational speaker, posted an article on his blog titled ‘The Silent Killer Of Relationships’, that went viral.

Harvey says he and his wife, Tessa, once attended a talk where the speaker said disappointment was one of the main reasons marriages failed. As a newlywed, Harvey thought sex, money and communication were the main causes of unhappiness and misunderstanding in relationships.

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But these were just triggers, the speaker said. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re single, married, employed, unemployed, young or old – having unmet expectations is lethal to everyone. No one is immune,’ Harvey writes.

A husband might expect his dinner to be ready and a cold beer to be waiting in the fridge when he gets home from work. But the reality might be his wife is still working on her laptop (and she’s utterly exhausted), the baby is crying, the supper isn’t prepared and there’s no beer, let alone a cold one. The result is often, of course, frustration. So set aside your frustration and face reality head-on, Harvey says. Then have a conversation with your partner about what you expect and why. Actor Antonio Banderas said it best: ‘Expectation is the mother of frustration.’ South African relationship counsellors Willem and Joke Nicol agree.

‘We always say expectations kill relationships. People actually have much more to offer than the limiting expectations we have of one another.’

Johannesburg life coach Getti Mercorio says your expectations of your spouse will differ depending on whether you’re newly married, have children, have been married before, are growing older or have health or money problems. ‘So if things change, we must discuss what’s happening and how we can adapt our relationship.’

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‘Research suggests that where there’s kindness, it’s possible to discuss and negotiate more or less anything, and to live with disagreements.’

‘It’s important that before getting together two people should talk about their non-negotiable needs,’ says Cape Town-based psychologist James de Villiers. Then they’ll know what they can realistically expect of one another. De Villiers says these needs are non-negotiable: respect, faithfulness and being prepared to grow the relationship and to seek professional help if you can’t agree with one another.

Durban psychologist Carol-Ann Dixon says expectations also come from underlying needs, such as the need for appreciation, peace and quiet, time together, safety, control, space and connection. ‘These needs can translate from our unmet needs as children into unmet expectations in adult relationships,’ she says.

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‘Articulate your needs and expectations. Share your feelings, then discuss solutions and agree on a change in behaviour.’ In other words, she says, it’s about:
  • Feeling the frustration
  • Identifying the need
  • Articulating the need and asking for help
  • Agreeing on a way forward

Johannesburg-based life coach Dora Prevost believes ‘the greater the expectation the greater the pain. Acceptance is an amazing trait that needs to be actively worked towards. If you have hope rather than expectations, you won’t be too disappointed.’

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