What really ruins love

Don’t expect too much from your partner and you won’t be disappointed. Sound cynical? Perhaps – but experts say this attitude could be one of the most important components of a successful relationship.

The more reasonable your expectations the more likely your significant other is to live up to them. Which means you’re less likely to resent them.

Linda Wise (51) from Polokwane, Limpopo, and her husband, Johan – who died recently at the age of 53 – learnt this lesson the hard way during their 29-year marriage.

When they were engaged they went for premarital counselling. “One assignment had us list 25 expectations we had of our spouse,” Linda recalls. “I thought I would battle to think of any but they just flowed out of me once I got started.”

Her expectations included unconditional love, loyalty and transparency. Her fiancé’s expectations were more concrete: he expected her to support his business decisions, to have coffee with him every morning and to tell him she loved him at least once a day.

A few years into their marriage they hit a rough patch when Linda didn’t think he was helping enough with the children.

It was all about expectations: she expected Johan to help more but he didn’t know what was expected of him. So the problems began.

The solution, Linda realised, was to communicate her expectations. “I realised he just didn’t see that I needed help,” she says. “So I started asking him things like, ‘Honey, will you please fetch the children’s jackets,’ and ‘The car seat needs to be put in the van.’ He was more than willing to help – I just needed to ask.

“It really changed my attitude and made my life easier. My husband was my best friend and I miss him every day.”

The realisation that unmet expectations can be deadly for a relationship recently became a hot topic of discussion after Derek Harvey, an American author and motivational speaker, posted an article on his blog titled The Silent Killer Of Relationships, which went viral.

Harvey says he and his wife, Tessa, once attended a talk where the speaker said disappointment was one of the main reasons marriages failed. As a newlywed Harvey thought sex, money and communication were trouble hotspots. But these were just triggers, the speaker said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re single, married, employed, unemployed, young or old – having unmet expectations is lethal to everyone. No one is immune,” Harvey writes.

A husband may expect his dinner to be ready and a cold beer to be waiting in the fridge when he gets home from work. But the reality might be his wife is still working on her laptop, the baby is crying, the supper isn’t prepared and there’s no beer, let alone a cold one.

The result is often, of course, frustration. So set aside your frustration and face reality head-on, Harvey says. Then have a conversation with your partner about what you expect and why.

Actor Antonio Banderas said it best: “Expectation is the mother of frustration.”

South African relationship counsellors Willem and Joke Nicol agree. “We always say expectations kill relationships. People actually have much more to offer than the limiting expectations we have of one another.”

Your expectations of your spouse will differ depending on whether you’re newly married, have children, are growing older or have health or money problems, says Getti Mercorio, a life coach from Johannesburg.

“So if things change, we must discuss what’s happening and how we can adapt our relationship. “Research on the longevity of marriage suggests that the most important ingredient is in fact kindness. Where there’s kindness there’s a possibility of discussing and negotiating more or less anything and being able to live with disagreements.”

There’s a lot of truth in Harvey’s blog, says James de Villiers, a Cape Townbased psychologist. “It’s important that before getting together two people should talk about their basic or nonnegotiable needs.” Then they’ll know what they can realistically expect of each other and what expectations they’ll have to fulfil.

De Villiers says these needs are nonnegotiable: respect, faithfulness and being prepared to grow the relationship and to seek professional help if you can’t agree with each other.

Carol-Ann Dixon, a psychologist based in Durban, says expectations also come from underlying needs, such as the need for peace and quiet, appreciation, time together, safety, control, space and connection.

“These needs can translate from our unmet needs as children and translate into unmet expectations in adult relationships because we believe adult relationships should meet all our needs.

“Articulate your needs and expectations. Share your feelings, then discuss solutions and agree on a change in behaviour.” In other words, she says, it’s about:

  • Feeling the frustration.
  • Identifying the need.
  • Articulating the need and asking for help.
  • Agreeing on a way forward.

All the experts agree that expectations aren’t necessarily dangerous – provided you and your partner are aware of each other’s expectations and that they’re realistic.

Dora Prevost, a Johannesburg-based life coach, believes “the greater the expectation the greater the pain”. “Acceptance is an amazing trait that needs to be actively worked towards,” she adds.

“If you have hope rather than expectations you won’t be too disappointed.”