People generally think they can do more than they can actually do. We think we can do more, be more and control more than we actually can. We think we can change our habits, change our relationships and change our lives for the better without a real understanding of what it takes to truly transform them. And to top it off, we hold those same expectations for others.
Mismatched expectations are inevitable. We believe others can be more than they can actually be. And if we hold tightly to unrealistic expectations—or even realistic expectations that the other person doesn’t align with—our frustration and disappointment accumulate like a thick layer of dust, obscuring the original beauty and intent of the relationship.
Mismatched expectations are why your friends sit you down and say, “He’s just not that into you.”
Mismatched expectations are why you keep trying to impress your boss even though she never delivers the direction or support you really need.
Mismatched expectations are why you feel like you are always trying to reignite the connection between you and your spouse and then don’t understand why he isn’t responding.
When we have mismatched expectations, we’re operating from a belief system about how specific relationships should look and feel—the rock-bottom thoughts and feelings we believe to be true. We may not even be conscious of them. Many of us are unaware of those underlying assumptions until we experience a relational disappointment or failure. Sometimes that frustration is related to a boundary violation, but more often, people have not met our expectations in the way they behave or think. Belief systems reveal themselves in an inner narrative that goes something like this: Husbands who really love their wives are romantic or women aren’t supposed to be that assertive or best friends don’t wait a day to respond to texts. Most of the time, we have neither communicated our expectations to the other person nor done the deeper work of identifying and examining our belief systems to consider whether they are helpful, healthy and accurate. We operate from belief systems about food, sex, money, gender roles, parenting, marriage, faith, our worth and our impact. All of our behaviors, whether good or bad, generally stem from one of these rock-bottom beliefs.
While some beliefs are relatively innocuous and fairly easy to adjust (Only guys take out the garbage!), many are rooted in the inevitable wounds of childhood (regardless of how healthy our family is) or our life stories. When we haven’t done the work necessary to heal from those wounds or better understand our stories, life can begin to feel dark and confusing. We find ourselves working out our issues with our father’s authority by trying to be rigid with our boss. We attempt to work out issues related to our mother’s manipulation by distancing ourselves from our wife’s needs. We keep trying to prove our worth to our gorgeous, gregarious coworker just as we once did to our big brother, our first boyfriend or our middle school frenemy. Even though those dynamics are rooted in what happened long ago, we keep living out the same patterns in our present relationships. Perhaps this is why the prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV).
If we started with that truth, we would all give up trying before we even begin! And it’s true: The reaction of our hearts often feels beyond our own understanding. But it’s not beyond God’s understanding, and He offers us a way forward in the promise that we are His children, that His love is poured out on us, and that we can be made new. If you keep failing at relationships, powerful belief systems from your past may be impacting your present and future.
Just as it’s not always easy to know your own expectations in a relationship, it’s even harder to know another person’s. Two simple questions can help you understand and evaluate your mindset in any relationship:
Given the length of time or commitment level of this relationship, do I have reasonable expectations, both for myself and the other person?
Given the circumstances of this conflict, do I have reasonable expectations for myself and the other person?
Conversely, you can reflect on these questions on behalf of the other person. Are the expectations of your friend, spouse, or boss reasonable for both the relationship and the circumstance? If you sense that they aren’t, you can work through the say what you mean process to try to uncover where you are not aligned. Relating to someone with mismatched expectations is like trying to balance on a seesaw. If both parties aren’t willing to compromise, the relationship will remain unbalanced. Disappointment and resentment will creep in, undermining the vulnerability and strength of their connection.
In addition to mismatched or unrealistic expectations, we may not follow through on doing what we say because we want to protect ourselves. We may lie about what we’ve done (or not done), go back on our word, or respond poorly due to fear or shame.
Because we’d rather avoid the truth or we lack the courage to speak it, we may compromise our integrity by choosing to tell a slippery lie rather than face a difficult conversation. We are hurt by an in-law at Thanksgiving dinner, but we don’t want to make a big deal of it. So when that person asks if something is wrong during a break in the football game, we say “I’m fine” even though we’ve been ruminating about their comment for hours.
Lying is a great short-term solution but a terrible long-term legacy. Usually underneath our lies is a deep fear of being rejected, a lack of courage around sticking to our boundaries, or a fear about engaging in conflict. But even when done out of kindness, lying is ultimately damaging because it erodes trust in those around us, who don’t know when we are saying what we really mean. And it erodes our trust in ourselves because it makes us more disconnected from what we like, want, and need. If either party in a relationship habitually lies—to the other person or to themselves—the relationship cannot grow to the levels of vulnerability and intimacy that our hearts crave.
I think that Christians in particular find it easy to hold on to a sense that if we “act like Christians,” we can work it out. But sometimes love does look like separation, especially when we acknowledge the reasons the relationship failed. If someone is not committed to honesty and growth, or is too tired, distracted or selfish to work on the relationship, the best way to love them may be to create healthy distance and let it be. Some people move from being one of our closest friends to a more distant place in our relational circles. Sometimes it’s because of them. Sometimes it’s because of us. Most of the time we both contribute to the change. And when we come to grips with the reality of the relationship, regardless of what we wish were true, we must learn from and release the failure before we can move forward.
Adapted from The Miracle Moment: How Tough Conversations Can Actually Transform Your Most Important Relationships, by Nicole Unice. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
Nicole Unice is a author, pastor, leadership coach and podcast host who spends her time helping people learn how to love one another. Her upcoming book, “The Miracle Moment” is a practical guide for all relationships, guiding people to transform conflict into connection. Find out more at nicoleunice.com/miraclemoment