Speak Your Assumptions, Express Your Expectations, Revel in the Results
By Cathryn Bond Doyle.
How many times have our feelings been hurt because we mistakenly assumed someone else knew what we wanted or thought or expected? How many times have we become annoyed or angry with someone who acted differently than we expected? Unspoken assumptions and unexpressed expectations are common relationship “happiness-busters.” When we’re willing to make the conscious effort to express ourselves by clarifying assumptions and expectations we’ll experience more joy and less stress in our relationships.
The phrase “willing to make the conscious effort” is used intentionally because when we take this new action, we’re also choosing to give up some of the emotional pay-offs that result from our silence. The purpose of this month’s article is to make you aware of these relationship saboteurs and explain the dynamics so you can recognize their allure, make different choices and enjoy the positive changes that result from your improved communications skills.
Why do we stay silent so often?
The short answer is often because we don’t think we should have to say them out loud or we just don’t think to say them out loud. As we interact with people we care about, we begin to feel that we know them and they know us. As our relationship deepens, we begin to make certain assumptions and have increased expectations for the relationship. When an assumption is wrong or an expectation isn’t met, we may feel some level of hurt and/or anger. The closer we are, the harder it is when our loved one disappoints us. Sometimes, the closer the relationship, the more upsetting minor infractions can be.
For example, couples have argued because one partner forgot that their Significant Other preferred “lite” cream cheese to regular cream cheese. For others, entire evenings have been ruined because a husband “had the nerve” to check out the score of a game during an evening that was supposed to be “our night out.”
Many of these situations can be avoided by asking and telling each other what we want and what we expect. It seems so simple yet these misunderstandings are common. Why is that? It’s not so much about the action itself, but the meaning and significance we give to those actions.
Here are some examples of unspoken self-talk that can lead to unpleasant “relationship moments:”
1. “If he really loves me, he’ll know exactly what I want or expect.”
2. “We’ve been over this before, she should know what I expect.”
3. “Anybody with a brain would know how to handle this situation. She’ll know what to do.”
4. “Everybody knows this is the right way to handle it, I shouldn’t have to say anything.”
Bluntly, these are all silent “testing and proving” manipulations. These are beliefs that set your loved one up for failure. They’re relationship land mines. Next time you’re about to attend an event, share an experience or even just spend some time together, look at your own internal dialogue and ask yourself these questions:
1. “Do I want this situation to go well or… will I wait to see what happens because I want to prove him/her wrong?”
2. “Do I want to make the effort to make this a great event or…do I set up a little test and evaluate how he/she does?”
3. “Do I want to be right or…do I want to have a loving experience?”
Being right, feeling “better than” your loved one, feeling wronged and therefore righteous, feeling sorry for yourself, feeling misunderstood or unappreciated are examples of not-so-proud emotional states. However, they are all examples of the emotional pay-offs we get from staying silent, making assumptions and not sharing our expectations.
Why would we choose one of these pay-offs?
Pay-offs actually do give us a temporary hit of feeling better the other person each time we focus on the incident. (That’s also why some people will bring up the past in the middle of an argument.) It also feels good because it numbs our real feelings or distracts us from our responsibility in any given interaction. The problem with this kind of cheap thrill is that it doesn’t last, it’s punishing to the ones we love, it can create even more issues to be resolved and it chips away at the level of trust in a relationship, therefore weakening the relationship.
One of my coaches says, “All behavior has meaning.” It’s so true. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll notice that these pay-offs are desirable for any number of reasons. We could be angry, we could feel hurt about something else that happened and secretly want to hurt our loved one (this is hostility in a nutshell). We could feel insecure and try to bring down our partner in an attempt to level the playing field (creating false esteem for ourselves.) This kind of behavior is very common. We’re exposed to manipulative behavior from birth.
People use manipulation because it often works and it seems like the easier route to getting what we want. However, manipulation also always hurts. So, the question is…”Do I want to be a manipulative person?” “ Do I want to have negative impact on someone I love?” Frankly, when we’re hurt or angry, the initial answer is sometimes “absolutely!” However, when cooler heads prevail, of course the answer is “No!” The alternative to taking pay-offs is taking specific action steps to create a positive experience that gets our needs met, avoids being hurt/angry and nips misunderstandings in the bud.”
Where do assumptions and expectations fit in?
Assumptions and expectations are usually the topic of conversation AFTER they are incorrect or not met. Although there’s always something to be learned (A benefit) in that kind of post-mortem conversation, the emotional cost is high. When helping couples untangle a disagreement, we usually discover that unspoken assumptions and/or the unexpressed expectations are the cause of the misunderstanding. The good news about this discovery is the remedy is straightforward and doable…speak your assumptions and express your expectations!
What can we do differently?
Talk to each other.
Make the commitment to work together to learn each other’s assumptions and expectations in advance of an occasion so you can insure a good experience. Goodness, how many social events have been ruined because couples were unable to read each other’s mind? Next time you’re aware that you’re making an assumption or holding an expectation…tell the one you love. Be courageous! Be willing to voice your wishes so you can be pleased and feel loved by your partner’s actions. Talk to him/her with the intention of clearing up any misunderstandings before they become problems.
This is a very powerful communications tool. When you want to learn of another’s assumptions or expectations, use some variation of one of my favorite lines, “My mind-reading license has expired so…please use words.” It’s amazing how wonderful it feels to ask for what you want and to get it from the one you love.
An example: You and your partner have been invited to a business dinner party and you are eager yet nervous (for any number of reasons) about attending. A day or two before the event, pick a time when you two can sit down and prepare together by sharing your feelings about the event.
You can say any or all of the following:
1. “Honey here are my expectations for the event…(fill in your feelings.)
2. “This is how you can help me, when this happens…(ask for what you need/want).”
3. “Please tell me if this is accurate. Here’s what I assume you will do, know, are feeling, etc…”
4. “What can I do/How can I help you to make sure you feel comfortable and confident?” (Really listen and figure out a strategy to meet his/her needs)
5. “If this happens…let’s do 1,2, or 3. OR Ask, what shall we do?”
The point of all of these is examples is that you are not willing to leave having a good time up to chance. Figure out ways to help each other and understand each other.
This approach may feel a bit uncomfortable at first. Give yourselves permission to screw up, forget, make mistakes, etc. Relationships are not about being perfect. (Some of you may need to read that sentence again.) Relationships are about bringing out the best in yourself and each other. They are about giving love and understanding to another while learning, changing and becoming your best Self in the process.
Next time you’re about to blame or judge your loved one for not meeting your expectations or for assuming incorrectly, stop and ask yourself…”Did I do my part to make sure they knew what I wanted?” Be brutally honest with yourself. Decide to give up the cheap pay-offs and take responsibility for your part in any misunderstanding. Use words. Apologize or accept an apology when applicable. Express yourself. Watch your relationships deepen as you create a new space for emotional safety and intimacy to flourish.
©2001 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All rights reserved.