How to figure out what you really want, and communicate it to your partner, before resentment sets in.
I’m always fascinated by wedding vows. So much is being said both explicitly and implicitly. The parties are entering into a contract, but they don’t always know what they’re promising—or even what they really want.
One thing I’ve often observed is that partners have expectations they don’t share with one another. Maybe they assume their needs are obvious, or maybe they’re ashamed of their expectations. Often, couples simply don’t know what they want. Regardless, when expectations go unmet, it’s cause for conflict. A phrase I heard over and over in divorce court was, “He never told me he expected …”
The antidote, obviously, is to share desires and expectations up front. The problem is that many of us don’t know what we actually expect from our partners.
I saw this fairly often in custody disputes, too. Parents weren’t even aware how strongly they felt about parenting styles until they had a baby. Once they did, the stress in the household shot up and every decision felt like life or death for the baby. That’s an extreme example of unexpressed expectations, but the principle is the same for all expectations: Partners don’t always know what they expect, and so can’t ask for what they need before the need arises. When expectations go unmet later, the results can be painful.
So how do we get to the root of what we really want? There’s no magic answer. It’s a matter of slogging it out in conversation. My fiancé and I revisit this conversation often. We find that each time we discuss expectations around a certain issue, we learn something new about ourselves and our own needs. These new desires can sometimes be unexpected for both of us, so allowing a new idea to marinate is important. The next time those specific expectations come up, they feel like old news and are far easier to discuss.
A good way to start learning what your expectations are for your partner is it to pick a topic and just start riffing. Money, sex, and kids are the biggies, so start with those and see what comes up. Emotions tend to flare around these issues. Money and sex, in particular, are rooted in our deepest unconscious beliefs as human beings, and they tend to trigger all kinds of safety, identity, and fear issues. Be ready to tackle some serious talks and deep-rooted issues and embrace the process. Communication is the essence of partnership—it’s how you learn about one another and how you create intimacy.
Because these are emotional topics, before you dive in, you should set a couple of ground rules to create a safe environment.
Creating a Safe Environment to Discuss Expectations
- Be curious, not furious. Take to heart a concept made famous by the well-known couples therapist, Dr. Ellyn Bader. Her mantra, “Be curious, not furious,” can help foster an open dialogue with your partner. When your partner says something that triggers an emotional response in you, rather than reacting to the emotion, ask more questions. Dig deeper. Be curious and suspend judgment for the time being. Do your best to learn more and empathize with the person you want to spend your life with.
- Validate your love for each other. Remind yourself that it’s your love and affection for your partner that was the reason you started this conversation. It may seem a little forced, but go ahead and say “I love you” out loud before you talk about the issues. You can say it to yourself or even directly to your partner. It’s corny for sure, but it also works in creating an open and safe environment for your partner to share.
- Remember: The more you talk, the easier it gets. Finally, remind yourself, and each other, that if the conversation becomes challenging, you’re developing muscles you’ll need for the rest of your lives together. Hard conversations are a constant in any good relationship. But with practice, you become stronger as a couple and you get better at having them.
Now dive in and let me know how it goes. I’m curious to hear what kinds of expectations you discover together.
Erik Newton is the founder of Together.