Expectations and Relationship Dissatisfaction: I Love You, But I Want More

29 October, 2020
Are your expectations too high when it comes to your significant other? Sometimes it feels like your partner simply doesn't live up to all you hoped and dreamed for. You're left with an unsatisfying kind of love that leaves you feeling empty and lonely.

One of the most common relationship problems today is unmet expectations. Most of us throw ourselves into relationships blindly and with an open heart. You tell yourself that this is it, that you’re finally going to have someone to share your life with and who can provide emotional stability. Very often, these expectations are dashed. Sometimes quickly, sometimes over the course of many years. Expectations and relationship dissatisfaction often go hand-in-hand.

People say things such as “You’re a dreamer, you need to be more realistic” or “Your expectations are too high, that’s why you’re always disappointed”. That may be true. You might be searching for something that simply doesn’t exist, a concept shaped by years of Disney movies and romantic comedies. Maybe you’re putting too much hope on a flawed human being who you don’t truly know yet.

That being said, we should clarify one thing. Having expectations is healthy and good. It helps define what you want for yourself, and not just settle for the first person who comes along. Wanting to be happy, loved, and validated are all positive, realistic expectations. It’s important not to expect things to be perfect all the time but the challenges should be worth it.

When your partner doesn’t meet those expectations, you naturally feel like something’s missing.

A couple standing far away from each other.

What can you do about expectations and relationship dissatisfaction?

Expectations form the structure of your relationships, whether it’s with your partner, your friends, or your family members. Your expectations define what you want in the short and long term and your desires and hopes. In short, everything you consider essential to feel safe, satisfied, and happy. Now, just as we mentioned above, it’s perfectly normal to identify your expectations and hold others to them to a certain extent.

The problems arise when what you expect isn’t what you get. The fact that your partner isn’t meeting your expectations could be due to one of two things. The first is that your assumptions about your future with this person were unrealistic and disproportionate. In other words, you set yourself up for failure because you were expecting the impossible.

The second reason is obvious. Your expectations were healthy and normal but what you’re experiencing doesn’t provide even minimal satisfaction. Sometimes, disappointment cracks open the ground under your feet and take away your stability. What you’re living every day isn’t what you expected. Love is there, but it doesn’t seem like enough.

Let’s delve a little deeper, shall we?

Is it bad to have expectations for your romantic relationship?

Today, the idea of living without expectations is very popular. People like to tout the benefits of giving space to the unexpected and letting go of their expectations, not just about people, but about everything. They might be right. But as rational beings, we do need to feel as though we have at least a minimum amount of control over what happens to us.

Expectations are personal beliefs, assumptions about what you’d like to happen in the future. They’re also sophisticated mechanisms that allow you to foresee or imagine certain events so you’ll know how to react to them. That being said, is it bad to have expectations about your relationship or your significant other?

  • The short answer is no. It isn’t bad to sketch out a set of expectations about the type of relationship you want.
  • However, your expectations should be realistic, appropriate, and as objective as possible.
  • For example, it’s normal to expect your partner not to cheat on you. It’s also healthy to expect your relationship to last more than two months, for your partner to support you during hard times, and for your partner to be someone you can confide in.

How to deal with expectations and relationship dissatisfaction

Many people feel unsatisfied with their relationships. They feel disappointed and even deceived when many things they expected don’t occur. Love is there, and you know your partner loves you back, but many things throw your relationship out of whack.

Is there anything you can do in these situations?

  • The first thing you should ask yourself is “Am I being realistic?” Have you been clinging onto untenable ideas about how a relationship should be? It’s important to clarify where these ideas come from and why you’re holding on to them. If you notice that many of your expectations are inappropriate or out of a fairytale, it’s important to adjust them. Doing so will help you avoid frustration and disappointment.
  • Do your expectations coincide with your partner’s? If you’re feeling unsatisfied and things aren’t going how you’d like them to go, it’s time to talk to your partner. You both need to clarify what you’re expecting from each other. Sometimes, these conversations help couples discover that their expectations are very different or that they’re neglecting things that are important.
  • What are you and your partner doing to meet expectations? If you and your partner share similar expectations, it’s time to figure out if you’re meeting them, and how. Sometimes, you take things for granted and make assumptions, which means you aren’t actively feeding and nourishing the relationship.
A happy couple walking along train tracks.

Space for expectations and the unexpected

Unmet expectations often trigger breakups. If you feel like your partner is traveling towards something else instead of making the journey with you, the motivation to stay together just won’t be there. These are complex situations that most of us have experienced at some point in our lives.

The best thing to do in these situations is to define some realistic and appropriate expectations that encompass what you want and what you don’t. Identify your priorities and your dealbreakers (cheating, lack of compassion, lying, being emotionally closed-off, etc.). Once you’ve defined your expectations and shared them with your partner, try to make room for the unexpected. Be open to surprises, for the ways you and your partner will grow and change together.

You don’t have to find someone who meets 100% of your expectations. In fact, that’s impossible. The key is finding someone whose path complements your own.

Baillo, M.; Larumbe, M. A.; Ramos, T y Serrano P. (1995). Las relaciones interpersonales: El conflicto en la pareja. En J. C. Sánchez, A. M. Ullán (Comps.) Procesos Psicosociales Básicos y Grupales (pp. 621-636). Salamanca: Eudema.

Lee, J. A. (1976). The colors of love. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Rivera A., S.; Díaz L., R. y Flores G., M. (1988). La distancia entre el querer (ideal) y el tener (real) como predictor de la satisfacción con la relación de pareja. La psicología social en México, II. 179-183.