Reducing the Negative Impact of Reasonable Expectations on Healthy Relationships By Lambers Fisher, LMFT, MDiv on 7/11/23 - 12:09 PM

On a daily basis, I have the pleasure of providing counseling services to couples hoping to strengthen their relationship together. Whether pre-engaged, engaged, recently married or married for decades, I help them to explore the similarities and differences between couples as well as within them.

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Barriers to Intimacy

While intimate relationships such as marriage have the potential for great happiness and joy, there is also the risk of frustration and disappointment. To assist these couples in strengthening their sense of relationship connection, we spend time exploring various aspects of their personal and relationship history, efforts that have already been taken to resolve the barriers between them, and identifying individual and relational strengths as well as growth areas. Of the many contributing factors to the difficulties these couples experience are the challenges they experience adjusting to differences between them — a very common barrier to healthy understanding and interaction.

For several years I have spent time helping couples not only identify their similarities and differences and the significance they play in their interactions, but also reframing their understanding and experience of those similarities and differences as less inconvenient and detrimental, and more appreciated, respected, and as potential opportunities for relationship enhancement.

Differences in assertiveness can be frustrating when one partner is expecting the other to be more open and direct, while the other partner is expecting that partner to tone it down a bit. Differences in preferred methods of quality time together can lead to distance if one partner is expecting a commitment to quality time to look like daily-initiated interactions, while the other partner is content with weekly, assuming that the commitment has been fulfilled.

In these cases, and others like it, reasonable expectations that are not healthily expressed or acknowledged can be a detrimental dynamic. After all, many feel as though what they are asking for or expecting is reasonable rather than too much. This fact often exacerbates their shared or individual disappointment since it hurts on one level to not have what one wants, and it hurts on another level to believe that the person you care about most doesn’t care enough to provide your reasonable minimal standard.

To address the detriment of reasonable expectations, I have found it useful to help them:

Identify their expectations

Own their expectations

Respect others’ expectations

Identify Their Expectations

Relationship expectations come from various sources. Sometimes we’re directly taught what to expect from a relationship from our parents or other loved ones. Other times we’ve learned by watching what has been modeled for us by parents or loved ones without anyone having to say a word. And yet other times, we have simply picked things up over the years, having sifted through life’s experiences, leaving behind what we did not care to experience and holding onto the things that we would look forward to experiencing.

Own Their Expectation

Over time, we develop a set of expectations that have years of justification, validation, and support. They can be so integrated into one’s view of the world that individuals are not aware that their expectations are not indicators of the “best” experiences and ways of doing things, but rather the experiences and ways of doing things that they have come to appreciate more than others. As such, before change can occur, they need to own their expectations as their own legitimate preferences. This does not make them any less valid. Rather, it allows for the opportunity to accept others’ differing preferences as legitimate.

Respect the Other’s Expectations

Once each member of the couple identifies and expresses their expectations and acknowledges them as their personal preferences, it can become easier to appreciate and respect the other’s expectations as reasonable preferences as well. And when that other person is the most important person in their life, for whom they have committed to helping meet as many preferences as possible, the challenge transitions from, “Why does my partner have such inconvenient and unreasonable expectations?” to, “How can I better understand why my partner has these preferences and how they can benefit our relationship even if they differ at times from my preferences and expectations?” This is a very different type of conversation, which at its essence is non-conflictual. This type of conversation seems a mutual win-win, with mutual respect, consideration, and care expressed along the way.

Consider the newly married couple who dated during college, married after graduation, and are now having difficulty adjusting to life after their honeymoon. Although they shared a goal of creating a new routine that prioritized their marriage together, they soon discovered that they had different expectations of what priority looked like. She expected them to maintain a frequency of quality time similar to what they had during college, including frequent shared classes, meals together, as well as a few shared extracurricular activities. It came then as a shock to her when her new husband no longer seemed interested in spending time with her, leaving her feeling lonely and misled. It was later revealed that her husband indeed valued and prioritized his marriage so much that he committed to dedicating all his “free time” to his wife; however, different from their shared college environment and routine, “free time” was now significantly less and came after spending nine hours of each day (including work and his commute) away from home, and consequently, his wife.

What helped resolve a potential connection- and intimacy-damaging misunderstanding was the couple’s effort to identify their individual and differing expectations on what their marriage would look like. Seeing the legitimacy of their own expectations influenced by reasonable conclusions based on past experiences helped them reduce defensiveness and judgment of each other’s differing expectations. This foundation then helped them see the legitimacy of their partner’s expectations for the same reasons and express that understanding in a way that created a safe environment for them to work and in which to create new shared expectations together, with both of their needs and desires in mind.


Reasonable expectations are just that — reasonable. However, the fact that they may be reasonable doesn’t mean that each of our clients is entitled to them, especially when the other’s expectations conflict with theirs. My challenge in working with these couples is to help each person to identify and own their preferences with appropriate value, while also avoiding the temptation to give them more value than they deserve; as doing so can lead to unnecessary and unhelpful relationship rigidity and emotional distance and separation.

Questions for Thought and Discussion

In what ways are this author’s premise for couples counseling similar to or different from yours?

How do you address differing expectations in couples counseling?

How might you have addressed the challenges of working with the couple described in this essay?

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Couples Therapy