Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I tend to have high standards in my relationships, and I don’t know if I’m setting myself up for failure by being unrealistic. My partner is thoughtful and caring, but sometimes I feel like he doesn’t go the extra mile, and I find myself being let down. Is he at fault, or am I expecting too much from the relationship? How do I know if my expectations are too high?
A: Without knowing exactly what your expectations are, it’s difficult to answer your question definitively, so let’s talk about what’s too high, what’s too low, and what’s “good enough.”
Having high standards is a good thing, but can they be too high?
First and foremost, your standards should be high enough that you expect to be treated well. Abuse of any kind should never be tolerated. Nor should breaches of trust, such as infidelity, lying, or addiction.
When couples have higher standards, it results in more kindness and respect.
Eli Finkel, a professor from Northwestern University and author of The All or Nothing Marriage, says that expectations in marriages have increased in the past few decades. Love is no longer enough.
Couples now expect their partner to help them grow and be more self-expressive. When individuals grow, relationships grow.
But Finkel cautions that no one person can meet all of our needs. He suggests some may need to recalibrate and lower the expectation of one-stop shopping. Having a diversified social network to meet varying needs may help with relationship satisfaction.
John Gottman’s four decades of relationship research informs us that expecting unending bliss is unrealistic. Instead, he argues, we should strive for the “good enough” relationship.
By good enough he means that there is honesty, respect, affection, trust, and commitment. It is unrealistic to expect your partner to heal your childhood wounds or to have a conflict free relationship.
You say that your partner is caring and thoughtful. These are great qualities and means that he is investing in the relationship. If he is paying attention to what you say, listening to your feelings, being affectionate, giving support, and spending time with you, he is turning towards you and making the relationship a priority.
Keep in mind, however, that nobody is perfect. Turning towards 100 percent of the time is an unfair expectation. Gottman found that happy couples turned towards each other 86 percent of the time. We all get distracted or stressed, but in even in difficult times we should turn towards each other most of the time.
If you are investing in your relationship and it is not being reciprocated, then it is time to ask for what you need.
You should never expect your partner to be a mind reader. If you want him to go the extra mile, then he needs to know what the extra mile is. Start by telling him that you feel let down at times. Describe the situation that is upsetting you. Ask specifically for what you want.
For example, early in my relationship with my husband I realized he was not the best gift giver. I received a Victoria’s Secret gift card for my birthday, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day.
The underwear and disappointment were piling up. It was time to talk.
“I so love that you want to get me something sexy, but there are only so many bras and panties a girl needs. I know you hate to shop and gift cards are easy, but I really would appreciate it if you would put a bit more thought and effort into gifts for me.”
We had a great conversation about how gift giving was handled in our childhoods. My family gave thoughtful gifts while his family rarely celebrated. I was able to understand his behavior in a whole new light. And he got much better at gift giving.
Whether you have a difference about gift giving or diametrically opposed views on money management, you should expect your partner to listen to your perspective. You should not tolerate belittling, criticism, or brushing off your feelings and concerns.
When conflicts do arise, it is safe to assume that there should be a willingness to compromise, apologize, forgive, and work through your issues.
Having satisfying sex is a healthy expectation, but no couple has nonstop, electrifying romance. The chemical cocktail of hormones that gives us that “butterflies” feeling in the falling-in-love phase fades for all couples. But fading doesn’t mean that we should accept a non-existent physical relationship.
Couples should come together to have fun, go on dates, and routinely connect in meaningful ways. But it is unrealistic to think that your partner should be velcroed to you 24/7. You both have a right to have individual hobbies, dreams, and aspirations.
The good enough relationship means that you are building happy memories and have a great friendship. You feel loved, have a satisfying physical relationship, and can work through your conflicts.
Settle for nothing less.
If your relationship is meeting the expectations I have outlined, try sharing your fondness and admiration for what he gets right. Cherish the relationship you have rather than focusing on what’s missing.
More from Asking for a Friend here.