How to Set Healthy Expectations in Your Relationships

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

Expectations – we all have them. We all have expectations for ourselves, for those around us, and for various situations and institutions. Broken expectations however can cause damaging and even irreparable levels of disappointment. Sometimes, our expectations may be too high and set up others and ourselves for failure.

This blog post will explore how we can establish healthy expectations with those around us – our spouses, our parents, our children, our colleagues – and also with ourselves as humans and Christians. We will also dive a bit deeper into the psychology behind our expectations.

The “Good Enough” Relationship: Something to strive for in our relationships

Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Esther Perel are two psychotherapists who have completed valuable research on human relationships. Much of their research is about intimate relationships but can also be useful with children, siblings, parents, and friends. 

Dr. John Gottman’s research led him to develop the notion of the “good enough relationship” as something to achieve in our own relationships. The title for this notion does not mean settling for less than the best. In fact, when two people are in a “good enough relationship”, they both have high expectations for how they want to be treated. Both partners in the relationship treat their partner with kindness, loyalty, patience, love, respect, and affection – and insist on the same in return. Neither of them will not tolerate emotional, verbal, or physical abuse. Their relationship may not always be free of conflict or arguments. However, the relationship is grounded on respect, loyalty, and care towards the other. 

In Dr. Gottman’s research through the Love Lab, he found that two thirds (69%) of relationship conflict is perpetual or unsolvable. Therefore no relationship or friendship out there will have zero conflict. Everyone brings their childhood wounds, idiosyncrasies, quirks, strengths and weaknesses to the table. The key to having a “good enough” relationship is to recalibrate these expectations and engage in conversation with one another to achieve a new perspective and understanding towards each other. It is about setting new expectations together and working towards meeting those. 

“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen”: what to watch out for in our relationships:

According to Belgian-American psychoterapist Dr. Esther Perel, expectations are resentments are waiting to happen. The way we set our expectations can create resentment in relationships if we are not setting them in a way that is healthy and thoughtful. 

According to Perel, modern love tends to put too much pressure on our partners to create happiness for us and meet all our expectations. We often want our partners to offer stability, safety, predictability, dependability while also offering mystery, adventure, and risk which is a difficult balance to strike in most people. We also expect our significant other to be the “missing piece” that fills any and every void in our life, or to fit into some kind of fantasy of what the “ideal partner” should be. Our partners must be mind readers, or fit into some kind of fantasy of what the “ideal partner” should be.

Don’t you think all of these expectations may be too much for one person to handle? How can we set clear and more reasonable expectations instead?

Expectations will inevitably make us more vulnerable.

Communicating our expectations with our loved ones can be difficult and scary. However when we do not set and communicate our expectations, resentment can build because nobody out there is a perfect mind reader. Without a little bit of fear and vulnerability, we cannot enjoy intimacy and trust in our relationships.

How can we set healthy expectations?

How can we set healthy and reasonable expectations and ensure we are not setting our loved ones up to fail? Here are some things to keep in mind: 

– Healthy expectations means having high standards – but not unrealistic standards: Healthy expectations should strive for positive outcomes in your life but not bring misery. Having high standards for yourself and your loved ones can be incredibly motivating. However there is a subtle difference between having high standards versus unrealistic expectations. High standards encourage yourself and others to be their best selves while still allowing room for human error and grace.

For example, an unrealistic expectation would be: “I expect him/her to know how I am feeling and act proactively.” High standards would be: “I expect them to care about how I feel.”

– Healthy expectations do not adhere to “all or nothing” criteria. Healthy expectations are realistic. They do not adhere to an “all or nothing” criteria where expectations are communicated in absolute terms such as “always” or “never” or “must” or “no matter what.” For example, “I must succeed at everything I try” is an unrealistic expectation. Instead, you could set an expectation for yourself that gives you more control while allowing you flexibility: “I will give my best effort and work towards my goals.”

– Healthy expectations are flexible and adapted: Related to the previous point, healthy expectations allow for exceptions and can be adapted according to the situation or the person in question. As an example, perhaps you grew up as a straight A student and became a doctor. You soon have a child. You may expect your child to also be a straight A student and become a doctor. However, this expectation is unreasonable especially if your child has other talents and passions. You can still hold high standards for your child – it is completely encouraged to expect and want your child to study hard and work towards their goals. You just have to be open to the fact that their goals may be different than yours, and perhaps it isn’t necessary for them to be a “straight A student” in high school to be successful later in life. 

– It is important to communicate your expectations and have accountability: This advice applies to any relationship in your life whether with your partner, your family members, friends, professional colleagues – it is healthy to communicate your expectations while remaining flexible if the other finds them to be unrealistic. Setting expectations together is a form of problem solving where both are focused on achieving a positive and realistic outcome. 

The Gospel and giving grace in our relationships:

In many of our other blog posts we have talked about how we are recipients of God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 says that we are saved because of God’s grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 

As the beloved recipients of God’s grace, God encourages us and implores us to show grace to others even if they hurt us, disappoint us, and not meet our expectations. The Bible provides us with these gentle reminders: 

Ephesians 4:32: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 

Matthew 18:33: Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you? 

We hope that this blog post encourages you to show grace to others, have high standards, communicate your expectations, while also taking a pause to see if your expectations may be unrealistic. 

You can watch the accompanying Anchor of Hope video here.


Do you find yourself succumbing to negative thought patterns? We are licensed psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and psychotherapists that believe in integrating the Gospel message into mental health treatment and counseling, as well as reducing the stigma and prevalence of mental health disorders. Contact us now to learn more about treatments, or just to receive a brief consultation about the need for treatment.

Found this post useful? Please consider donating to Oak Health Foundation, which is a 501(3)c nonprofit dedicated to providing resources regarding holistic mental healthcare and subsidized treatment for those in need.

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