Relationship Expectations, Reality & Disappointment

Toxic Relationship

“My partner isn’t the same person they were when I met them.” or “How can I get my partner to change?” These are the kinds of questions we often ask. But are we not seeing the full picture? And are we focused on trying the change the wrong person? Expectations lead to disappointment, and this is just as true in relationships as it is in any other area of our lives. So how can we come to see and accept the reality of situation, so that we can create real change in our lives?

I have a friend who often calls to vent about their relationship drama, and while the details each time are slightly different, it’s always the same basic issue, which comes down to their partner being disrespectful and antagonistic.

And sometimes I’ll offer some perspective. Other times, I simply listen, allowing this person to have a safe space to vent. But I don’t tend to offer advice, because we’ve already had this talk so many times and there’s rarely anything I can add to what I’ve already said.

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. But after some time things can take a sudden 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 completely changed. But often the reality is that they’ve simply gotten comfortable.

The person who they seem to have become, is probably the same person they’ve always been. But when we met them, what’s likely is that they changed their behavior in order to seem more appealing; that is, in order to convince us that they would make an ideal partner. But once the relationship has been secured and attachments put in place, people tend to revert back to their previous behavior patterns. So it’s not so much that they change. But rather that they weren’t being fully authentic during the initial stage of the relationship. And probably you weren’t either.

It’s something we all tend to do, and for a number of reasons that I wont go into here. But it’s during the secondary stages of the relationship 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. And so it’s at this point that we have an opportunity to decide whether we’re going to continue or call the whole thing off.

To get a better understanding of how this works, I like to give the example of a job interview. Now, when someone goes to an interview they put a little extra effort into their appearance, they put on their best behavior, they hide their flaws and talk themselves up and try to give the impression they’re going to be the best candidate for the job. And if they get the job, for a little while they usually work hard to live up to that image.

But once they’ve been employed for a while and they feel that they’ve secured the job and they’ve gotten comfortable in it, there’s a tendency to relax, to slack off a bit, to become sloppy and make a few of mistakes without really much effort to correct them.

Now, when the manager begins to notice that the employee is not quite living up to the image they presented, they might have a talk with them, 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 again, 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.

So, 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 over and over again, not just in their case, but with more people than I can even begin to count.

Things get heated and the two either break up or come very close to breaking up. Then all of a sudden the person who was being neglectful or abusive or confrontational, suddenly shifts. Once again they become very affectionate and attentive. So the two of them decide to stay together and everything’s wonderful for a a little while. But as soon as they get comfortable again, the drama starts back up and the whole cycle begins again.

I ask my friend why they put up with it. They tell me that they see so much potential in their partner to change in a positive direction. But the thing about potential, I remind them, 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 someone’s 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 those expectations.

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 be surprised when they do? It would seem unreasonable and unrealistic to expect them to behave any differently than how they always have. If the person is always doing the same thing over and over again, we should expect, if anything, for that pattern to continue. And I’m not suggesting that the other person is incapable of change. All I’m pointing out is that people rarely do change.

But the thing that I wanna bring attention to is, why are we so invested in the need for them to change, for them to be different? Why can’t we just accept them as they are? Because 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 they would like to see change. Their answer is always in regard to their partner’s behavior. I remind them that they has no control over the other person’s behavior, and that it’s likely, given what they’ve experienced so far, that the other person is not going to change. I also remind them that the only person they have any real power to change is themselves. So when I ask what they’d like to see change, I really mean in regard to themselves. They can go on and on about all the things their partner could do differently, but when I ask what they could do differently, they have to stop and think long and hard about it.

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 level 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?

My friend 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 strenuous for the other person in the relationship. 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 really hypocritical, because we’re already refusing to take responsibility.

In my friend’s situation I see a clear pattern, and I ask if they see 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 they’ve got all these expectations about their partner being the one who needs to change.

So I ask them if they can simply recognize their partner’s pattern and accept it, but at the same time recognizing their own pattern, because that’s the only area in the situation that they have any real control over.

So I ask, If their partner keeps doing the same thing over and over again, why do you think it will be any different this time? Why don’t you just accept that this is what the other person does? Accept it, and then decide whether it’s worth putting up with. And I can sense that there’s some hesitation. My friend is very attached, and doesn’t want to be alone.

I don’t suggest that they break up, but I can sense that this is an option they’re considering. And along with that comes all the discomfort of having to step out of their comfort zone and be alone. That overwhelming feeling prevents us from really looking deeply at the issue, from accepting it as it is. Often 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, again, it comes back to the same question of whether or not we can simply accept the situation as it is?

I told my friend, “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, accepting the other person as they are, and simply trying to understand it.” And 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 entirely, because all that’s done so far is cause a lot of disappointment.

And then, when you’ve accepted the situation, accepted the realistic probability that the other person is not going to change, the decision of what to do will come naturally. Not that you have to make any effort. Not that you have to overthink it. You’ll know what to do. So you can decide all that later. But right now, just be willing to accept what is.

I asked if they can also acknowledge their own patterns. Not just focus on the other, but to turn their attention onto themselves and notice how they keep doing the same thing over and over again. Every time they call me to talk about their partner, there’s almost always some complaint, and often it’s the same complaint. But I don’t know what to say that I haven’t said already. I know that they don’t have to put up with it. I know that they’re holding on out of attachment more than genuine love. I know that they can do much better, and that they also have the potential to change. But they haven’t. And I can’t expect them to. I expect that I’ll be getting the same phone call again in a couple of weeks or a month, and a number of times after that.

If I expected them to change every time this situation arises, I’d be as frustrated as they are. But I’ve come to accept the fact that they’re just not ready to change, for whatever the reason. And I’m not invested in the need for them to change. If they do, that would be wonderful. But if not, what good is it to be disappointed?

I see their potential. I know that they have the solution to the problem. I know what they’re capable of. And I would like to see them grow and evolve beyond this situation. But I don’t expect it. I accept the fact that they’ve gotten themselves stuck in this pattern. And as long as they come to me with their problems I’ll continue to do my best to encourage them in the direction of their potential. But if they don’t move in that direction, that’s not my concern. It’s their life, and they can do as they please. All I can do is offer a little perspective. But as far as change goes, that’s not up to me. And it’s not up to any of us to change anyone else.

So we need to stop investing so much energy into the expectation that the other person 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 ever 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 really need to stop expecting so much from our partners, and to expect much more from ourselves.

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