Relationship Expectations, Reality & Disappointment

Toxic Relationship

I have a friend who often calls to vent about her relationship drama, and while the details each time are slightly different, it’s the same basic issues over and over again. Sometimes I’ll offer some perspective. Other times, I just listen, because we’ve already had this talk a dozen times and there’s rarely anything I can say that I haven’t said already.

Relationships often begin with a great deal of passion and excitement. The other person is attentive and affectionate and very easy to get along with. And then all of a sudden things shift. The person seems to transform into someone totally different, perhaps even the very opposite of who they seemed to be when we met them. It would seem as if they’ve changed. But often the reality is that they’ve simply gotten comfortable. Once the relationship has been secured and attachments put in place, people tend to revert back to their usual behavior. So it’s not so much that they change. But rather that they weren’t being fully authentic during the first part of the relationship. And probably you weren’t either.

It’s something we all tend to do, and for a number of reasons I wont get into here. But it’s during the time that follows that we get to see a person’s true colors, and we get a taste of what the rest of the relationship is going to be like. This is an opportunity for us to fully accept one another in our authenticity and to work toward improving ourselves individually. And if we’re not willing to do that, or it seems the other is not willing, then it might be best to walk away.

When someone goes to an interview they put an effort into their appearance, they put on their best behavior, they talk themselves up and give the impression they’re going to be the best employee. And for a little while they work really hard. But once they secure the job and they’ve gotten comfortable, there’s a tendency to relax, to slack off a bit, to become sloppy and make a few of mistakes without any effort to correct them.

When the manager begins to notice they might have a talk with the employee, letting them know that their job is in jeopardy if they don’t shape up. So the employee suddenly shifts their behavior. They start working diligently, showing up to on time, going out of their way to impress the boss. And once it seems that everything’s back to normal and the job is once again secured, they begin to relax, and fall back into the same familiar patterns of behavior.

When my friend calls me to vent, it’s always the same thing. The relationship was going good for a little while and now there’s all this drama and conflict. And I’ve seen the pattern. Things get heated and the two either break up or come very close. Then all of a sudden the other person shifts. They become very affectionate and attentive. So they stay together and everything’s wonderful for a week or two, or maybe longer if they’re lucky. But as soon as they get comfortable again, the drama starts back up and the whole cycle begins again.

I ask her why she puts up with it. She tells me that she sees so much potential in her boyfriend to change in a positive direction. The thing about potential, I remind her, is that we all have it. In fact, every human being has within them the very same potential to be the most amazing, compassionate, enlightened being. But how many of us live up to that potential?

We get so hung up on someones potential that we can’t accept the reality. We have all these expectations for the other person to be different than how they currently are, and then we get upset when their behavior doesn’t match with our ideal.

First of all, if this person has a pattern of always returning back to their default position, as most of us do, then why should we expect them to not to? It seems unreasonable and unrealistic. If the person is always doing the same thing over and over again, we should expect, if anything, for that pattern to continue.

And secondly, why are we so invested in the need for them to change, to be different? Why can’t we just accept them as they are? We say that we love the person, but we don’t accept them, which is to say that we aren’t being very loving, because to love means to accept. But we don’t accept. We want them to be someone else, which is totally ridiculous, because they aren’t someone else. And all of the disappointment and frustration we have isn’t because of what they’re doing or not doing. It’s because we expect them to do something else.

I ask my friend what she would like to see change. Her answer is always in regard to her boyfriend’s behavior. I remind her that she has no control over his behavior, and that it’s likely, given what she’s experienced, that he’s not going to change. I also remind her that the only person she has any real power to change is herself. So when I ask what she’d like to see change, I mean in regard to herself. She can go on and on about all the things her boyfriend could do differently, but when I ask what she could do differently, she has to stop and think for a long time.

We have a tendency to focus almost entirely on the other person, on what they’re doing wrong and how they need to change. But can we give that same kind of focus to ourselves? What are we doing that needs to be adjusted? What can we do to improve the situation? How can we change?

She knows what she needs to do in order to change her situation, but she doesn’t want to have to be the one to change. That might mean having to take some responsibility and making some kind of effort, and no one likes to do that. And yet, we seem to think that the effort would be less for the other person. It’s always about the other person. It’s always their responsibility. And we get upset when they refuse to take on that responsibility, which is hypocritical, because we’ve already refused to take responsibility.

In her situation I see a clear pattern, and I ask if she sees it too, because we need to first recognize the pattern before we can break it. And again, part of the pattern, part of the problem, is that she’s got all these expectations about him being the one who needs to change.

So I tell her to recognize what his pattern is and to accept it, but to also look at her own pattern, because that’s the only area in the situation that she has any real control over.

So I say to her, “If he keeps doing the same thing over and over again, why do you think it will be different this time? Why don’t you just accept that this is what he does? Accept it and then decide whether it’s worth putting up with.” I can sense that there’s some hesitation. She’s attached. She doesn’t want to let him go. I don’t tell her to break up with him, but I can sense that this is what she’s thinking. And along with that comes all the discomfort of having to step out of her comfort zone and be alone. That overwhelming feeling prevents us from really looking deeply at the issue, from accepting it as it is. We don’t want to consider ending up alone, so we keep playing with the fantasy that it’s all going to magically change. And that desire for things to change means that we’re resisting the reality of the situation, which causes us so much frustration in the first place. So can we simply accept the situation as it is?

I told her, “Don’t worry about making a decision right now, whether or not to stay in the relationship. Just focus on accepting the situation as it is, and simply trying to understand it.” Forget about the potential. Let go of the picture in your head of how things could be. Accept the person just as they are, in the here and now, and accept that they’re not likely to change. Let go of the expectation altogether. Then the decision will come naturally. Not that you have to make any effort. You’ll know what to do. You can decide all that later. But right now, just accept it.

I asked her if she can also acknowledge her own patterns. Not just focus on his, but also look at herself and how she keeps doing the same thing over and over again. Every time she calls me to talk about him, there’s always some complaint, and often the same complaint. But I don’t know what to tell her that I haven’t said already. I know she doesn’t have to put up with it. I know that she’s holding on out of attachment more than love. I know she can do better, that she also has the potential to change. But she hasn’t. And I don’t expect her to. I expect that I’ll be getting the same phone call again in a few weeks or a month, and again after that.

If I expected her to change every time this situation arises, I’d be as frustrated as she is. But I accept the fact that she’s not ready to change, for whatever the reason. And I’m not invested in the need for her to change. If she does, great. If not, oh well. But mostly, I don’t expect it because so far she’s done the same thing over and over again.

I point this out to her as an example. I see her potential. I know that she has the solution to the problem. I know what she’s capable of. And I would like to see her grow and evolve beyond this situation. But I don’t expect it. I accept the fact that she’s herself gotten stuck in this pattern. And as long as she comes to me with her problems I’ll continue to do my best to encourage her in the direction of her potential. But if she doesn’t move in that direction, or she moves very slowly, that’s not my concern. It’s her life. She can do as she pleases. All I can do is offer a little perspective. But as far as change goes, that’s not up to me.

So we need to stop investing so much energy into the expectation that the other will change. And any situation in which we find ourselves disappointed or frustrated, we need to redirect our focus away from the other and onto ourselves. Are we frustrated because of what the other has done or hasn’t done, or are we really frustrated because of the expectation for them to behave differently? In, other words, do they cause the frustration within us, or do we cause that ourselves? Because if we had no expectation regarding them whatsoever, would we have any disappointment?

If we want to change our relationships, to get unstuck, to move in a forward direction, to grow and evolve, to be free from frustration and disappointment, we need to expect nothing of the other, and to start expecting much more of ourselves.


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