Imagine you are driving to work one morning on your usual route. You merge onto the interstate, and slide over to the left lane where you set your cruise control and stay for a while. You’re obeying all of the traffic laws- you have your seat belt on, you’re within the posted speed limit, you’re maintaining your lane just fine, your tags are current and your vehicle is in good repair. You’re doing everything right, so, when you see blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror, you’re caught off guard.
You pull onto the shoulder, put the car in park and roll down your window. When the police officer approaches, you have your license and registration waiting for him.
“Do you know why I pulled you over this morning?”
“Actually, no. I had my cruise control set, so I know I was not speeding…”
“No, you weren’t speeding. I pulled you over because you were driving your blue car in the left lane. Blue cars can only drive in the right lane.”
“What? That’s ridiculous! I’ve never heard of that before!”
“Well, it’s the law as of today, so I have to write you a ticket…”
“But, I didn’t even know that was a thing! That’s a dumb law! What difference could it possibly make what color my car is?”
“If you paid attention, you might know these things. Here’s your ticket.”
He hands you the ticket, and you go nuclear. Now you have to pay a fine for something you didn’t even know you were doing wrong, and you still don’t know what in the lemon-scented fuck the color of your car even has to do with anything. The next morning, you might want to pick a different route to avoid the interstate, or call out of work altogether.
The most frustrating part of this scenario is that you’re being held accountable for expectations that were not communicated to you. You’re learning the rules to the game one by one as you unintentionally break them – and they keep changing- so you never know what is expected.
And, so it is in relationships when expectations are not clearly communicated. We expect our partner to know what we want, what we like, where we want to go, what gifts to buy- without us ever giving them such information. Then, if they don’t meet our unspoken expectations, we get upset and make them feel like they have failed us, because they didn’t read our minds and do the thing we secretly expected them to do, but never asked them for. It’s bullshit- like getting a ticket for driving your blue car in the left lane- but we do it without even realizing it sometimes.
In Buddhist philosophy, we learn that attachment is the root of all human suffering.
When we have expectations that we do not communicate to our partner, the suffering is two-fold. Because we’ve got our heart set on a certain mystery thing, if they don’t deliver, we might be disappointed- even hurt. Our attachment to the thing we were expecting may make us feel like our partner doesn’t know us as well as we wish they did, or like they haven’t paid attention to the hints we’ve been dropping, or tuned into the telepathy we just know we’re sending them. When we don’t get what we want, we may sulk and express our disappointment. Then, our partner suffers because even though they didn’t know what we wanted from them, if they tried to do something nice for us and we don’t appreciate it (because it’s the thing they chose instead of the thing we were secretly wishing they would do) they may feel totally dejected. They may feel like their best isn’t good enough for us, or that they can’t make us happy, no matter how hard they try. This feeling is quite disheartening, and does not foster the intimacy and connection we are all looking for in our relationships.
Our attachment to our unspoken expectations creates suffering for everyone. This is why we must communicate with our partners, and learn to release our attachments and live in the moment.
I have the privilege of being a mommy to grown children. As they navigate their romantic relationships, I am honored that they often come to me for advice. Hands down, communication is the number one thing we talk about. Communication is at the root of almost every issue every couple has. Learning to express our needs, wants, boundaries, expectations, and emotions to our partners honestly and openly is crucial for the health of our relationships.
Most likely, this is not news to anyone. At the logical level, we understand that communication is important. So, why do we hold back? What keeps us from openly expressing ourselves and telling our partner what’s on our minds?
Fear of vulnerability, for one. No matter how much we trust our partner, it’s always just a tiny bit terrifying opening up to them and revealing things that feel uncomfortable. We may fear judgement or rejection. We may fear that our partner will think of us differently because of what we’ve shared, and if they think of us differently, that might change our relationship. The great news is, vulnerability typically opens doors we didn’t know were closed. When we take that scary step and share our secrets with our partner, it gives them the opportunity to look at us with more empathy and compassion. When we reveal our humanness, it creates space for them to share their own humanity with us. And, as we share together, our connection grows deeper. We build trust, intimacy, and overall stronger, more resilient bonds through sharing with each other openly.
Feelings of unworthiness may also make us hold back in our relationships. Maybe a past relationship, or even childhood wounds, taught us that our needs and wants are unimportant or burdensome. Maybe we don’t feel like we deserve to have the good things we crave. We may feel selfish, guilty, ashamed- even embarrassed- to tell our partner what we really need and want. The only thing we can achieve by not expressing these things to our partners is resentment for us, and frustration for them. We have to trust that our partner wants us to be happy. They want to please us and give us everything we’ve ever wanted. But, when we don’t communicate what those things are, it leaves them in a constant guessing game- one that they rarely win.
It’s completely unfair for us to hold our partners accountable for expectations we’ve never expressed.
Sometimes, we don’t talk to our partners about our needs and expectations because we don’t even know what they are. We are all constantly learning, growing and evolving. Our needs, values, opinions, and desires may shift with us through the years. I think younger couples may have more difficulty expressing themselves because they are still getting to know who they are as individuals, and can’t communicate something to their partner that they are not aware of. They are learning as they go, and often times learn what they want and need by not getting it. This can create a volatile dynamic where each person feels like they are not heard or understood.
This is not unique to young couples, as older folks can also struggle with self-awareness. Some people jump from relationship to relationship so quickly, they never invest the time it takes to get to know themselves. This creates sort of a chameleon personality, where they are constantly shifting themselves to fit into a relationship with someone else, then blaming their unhappiness on the other person, when really, they are unhappy because they don’t know who they are as an individual. If we don’t know how to make ourselves happy, it’s impossible to teach a partner what we need in our relationship.
And, ladies, we have got to stop playing games with our guys. This is a big one I coach my kids on, but I definitely see grown folks doing this, too. When he asks you something like, “Hey, Valentine’s Day is coming up. What do you want to do?” If you respond with, “I don’t know, whatever you want to do…” you have to make an agreement with yourself that whatever happens after that will be exactly what you wanted, because it’s exactly what you asked for. If you are secretly hoping he will take you to that fancy steak house downtown, but you don’t tell him that’s where you want to go, you don’t get to be mad when he takes you to your favorite sports bar instead. If you want flowers, tell him. You want to go to a show, tell him. If you don’t tell him, he won’t know, and if he doesn’t know, you can’t be upset with him.
We have two choices: either communicate our expectations clearly to our partner, or let go of our attachments and let everything be a happy surprise. Of course, there are non-negotiable things in relationships like fidelity, honesty, and mutual respect. These expectations should be discussed, and are fine to hold onto as they are the backbone of our commitment to one another. Communicating honestly about what you need to feel safe and secure in your relationship will pay dividends as you grow together. This is a wonderful time to unpack your baggage with your partner. Talk about your past, your triggers, your fears and dreams. These conversations are the cornerstone of a healthy union and cannot be substituted with any amount of hot sex, common interests, or wearing matching outfits.
For the little things, if we practice mindfulness and stay in the present moment, we will not venture out into the future to decide how things should be before they happen. When we are present in each moment, and allow things to happen without trying to control everything, life can bring us beautiful surprises we never expected. We will meet our partner with more gratitude and appreciation, because we will be there with them in the present moment, instead of clinging to our expectations and feeling disappointed. Allowing our partners to be creative and give to us from their hearts keeps life fun and exciting. We may find that our partners think of things we’ve never thought of before. When our lovers feel engaged and appreciated, they want to do everything they can to make us happy. The more they give to us, the more we want to give back to them, and we live in a beautiful circle of generosity, creativity, and feeling loved, appreciated, and delighted. This is truly how every relationship should be.
As much as we might wish our lover could read our mind- they can’t. They can’t do it anymore than we can, and it’s not fair to expect them to. We have to be big girls and tell our guys what we want- in the bedroom, our communication styles, what our love language is, the level of commitment we desire, where we like to go, what we like to do, what our deal-breakers are- it’s our job to make sure our partner knows all these things and more. Initiating these conversations, hopefully, will allow you to learn about your partner as well, so you can give to him all the wonderful things he gives to you.
No one wants to play a game they can never win. Our unspoken needs and wants, and our attachment to them, might make our beloved feel like they’re getting a ticket for driving a blue car in the left lane. Eventually, they’re going to want to park that car and go get on the bus where things make sense and the rules are predictable. But, if we can be brave and communicate our expectations and desires, we create opportunities for our partners to get it right every time. When we set our lovers up to win, everyone wins.