“Expectations are agreements we never made.”
Unmet expectations are one of the great banes of intimate relationships. Any two people can have such different understandings about what constitutes a request that it’s no wonder the couples counseling business is booming.
When I was a management consultant, I once asked a roomful of executives and their employees to write down what they meant by “asap” (as soon as possible). That term appears to be pretty clear, doesn’t it? Yet when they read their definitions aloud, there were almost as many understandings of “asap” as there were people in the room, ranging from “when I think it’s really due” to “drop everything else and do this NOW.”
If it’s good for me, it’s good for you
People are inclined to make many different interpretations of one thing. One’s interpretation generally coincides with what serves their convenience and their own best interests. But different interpretations aren’t always suspect. Any marriage counselor can tell you that two members of a couple can have two very different versions of the same event. “She yelled at me,” he says. “Saying something firmly is not yelling,” she replies. “He brought home ordinary eggs when I asked for organic,” she says. “Eggs are eggs!” he counters. And they’re off and running.
The Art of the Effective Ask
One remedy for unmet expectations is to learn the art of making an effective request.
What is an effective request? An effective request is clear, direct, and provides the listener with the required conditions of satisfaction. It sounds kind of exacting, doesn’t it? That’s on purpose. After seeing enough couples in conflict over unmet expectations, I believe that putting a little extra precision into the mix is a very good idea.
Is it an “Ask-Or-Else”?
Along with clarity, directness, and well-defined conditions of satisfaction, I’d add this: Know the difference between a request and a demand. In my proposed method of making effective requests a demand is an “or else” sort of thing. There are consequences for a demand, and a demand should not be made casually. If you’re making a request that is actually an “or else,” make sure the listener knows this. If it’s a genuine request, it allows for at least three different responses: “I accept,” I decline,” or “I have a counter offer.”
What Women Want
At the risk of being too gendered, I observe that most men complain that the requests their women make, specifically requests for gifts or services, fall more under the category of hints—or worse, expectations of mind reading. The women may say, “I told him that I loved his gesture of buying me another expensive anniversary gift, but I have also often told him how much I value new and novel experiences with him. Is he incapable of putting two and two together?”
Why yes, as a matter of fact, he is. Because that’s exactly what happened. It’s doubtful he knowingly chose to give his lady a gift she wouldn’t want.
What Men Want
Sticking with gender norms for the moment, most men want nothing more than their partners’ approval.
Men have their own unspoken expectations. He wants to be acknowledged for all he does to care for her, protect her, and make her happy. He wants to be desired. He seems to want thanks for the things women consider common acts of partnership.
So what does a clear, direct, request with well-defined conditions of satisfaction sound like? Let’s consider a few before-and-after examples.
Gifts versus Quality Time
“Thanks for the watch, honey. You know, it would also be great if you just take me somewhere special.”
“I really like the watch, but you’re not obligated to buy such awesome gifts. You could do lesser things.” Of course, he wants to give her the things she likes most! Like awesome watches and jewelry.
About a month before her next birthday, “Honey, I loved the watch you got me last year. Look, I’m still wearing it. I have a special request for my upcoming birthday. Could you take me for a whole weekend to the lake, just you and me, in a cabin? And will you get your brother and his wife to have the kids stay with them? The kids love their overnights with them.”
Acts of Service
“I raked the yard without asking for your help, spent the day with the kids so you could hang out with your girl pals, and I had dinner ready when you got back, even though we usually cook together on weekends. You tell me that doing things for you is an ‘aphrodesiac,’ yet you were conked out by the time I was done brushing my teeth!”
“Anything I do for you has sexual strings attached. Don’t expect me to freely do things for you as you do for me.”
“Babe, I have a request. How about if you take a day to yourself on Saturday? I’ll take care of the kids and have dinner ready when you come back. Once we put the kids down for the night, I’d like to have some intimate time with you, if you know exactly what I’m saying, and I think you do (with a sly laugh). Are you in?”
The Family Trap
“I’d love it if we spent more time with my family sometime.” (Her hidden expectation is that he’ll recall that they always spend winter holidays at his parents’ home with his siblings and their families. In the future, he’ll surely arrange to spend more time with her family.)
“When it’s convenient, I’d like for us to spend more time with my family.” (He believes that they both feel closer to his family than to hers. She has given him vague hints but no indication of her mounting resentment, because she has waited for him to “be more fair.” For his part, he just keeps doing what seems to have been working so far.)
“I have a request. I’m missing my family and I’d like to start alternating holidays with them. I notice I’m starting to feel some resentment and I don’t like feeling that way about you or your family. Let’s start this with the winter holidays, OK? Will you let your folks know–and tell them there’s no problem with them, that we’re just giving my family equal time?”
Accept, Decline, or Counteroffer
The preceding examples assume that the hearer could accept, decline, or make a counteroffer. If the hearer declines, I don’t pretend it necessarily means happy compliance; there may be some things to talk about and negotiate. But I don’t recommend making demands until such time as you mean it.
Try out the “effective request” approach. I promise you’ll see fewer misunderstandings and more of the kinds of interactions you and your partner want.
Looking for more tools and skills regarding communication and connection? Check out the Getting the Love You Want Workshop, offered every month by the Imago Center of DC.
Getting the Love You Want: a virtual workshop for Couples
We also offer a workshop for individuals looking to do deeper inner personal work.
Keeping the Love You Find: A remote workshop for Individuals