I recently watched the movie Beauty and the Beast. The protagonist, Belle, longs for something more than the provincial life she lives in Villeneuve. When she gets to venture out of her village to rescue her father from Beast’s castle, her dream is fulfilled. She reaches the palace and frees her father. However, her father’s freedom comes at a price–Belle has to take his place as a prisoner. So, she gets to live in Beast’s magnificent palace, albeit without her freedom. She’s allowed to move about within the castle, but not to meet her father back in the village. It takes Belle a good while to get used to her new reality, because leaving the province doesn’t work out quite as perfectly as she’d expected.

I’m sure many of us can relate to Belle’s situation. We imagine. We dream. We hope. But when life presents us with our wish, we don’t think it meets our expectations. And so, we feel disappointed. Economist and international development specialist Nat Ware, in his TEDx Talk Why we’re unhappy–the expectation gap, explains, “At a very basic, simple level, we’re unhappy when our expectations of reality exceed our experiences of reality.” Simply put, realistic outcomes barely ever match our fanciful hopes. He calls this an expectation gap.

How often have we heard variations of the adage ‘Put in the efforts, do not expect results’? I don’t conform to that thought. Because without an expectation, there’s no goal. Without a goal, there’s no motivation. Without motivation, there’s no action. And without actions, there’s no growth. I believe every human being needs to have expectations. Psychologist Tishya Mahindru Shahani agrees. She says, “Expectations frequently guide our behaviour. While we can’t foresee our future, expectations can help us make plans and be prepared. They give us a sense of predictability.” So, it’s not really having an expectation in itself, but rather–as Ware pointed out–the expectation gap that makes us unhappy.

The gap between reality and expectations is quite worrying. Especially when it concerns relationships. Let’s say a father has high hopes for his daughter. But is it truly in his daughter’s best interest to push her to pursue a profession of his choice? Sure, every father wants the best for his daughter, but pushing his own idea of ‘best’ might disappoint her. Let’s say a mother misses taking care of her infant son. But is it fair to coax her grown-up son to get married and have children, just so she can have grandkids? Sure, every mother loves her son to bits, but cajoling him to get married and have kids might be a vicarious thing to do.

Perhaps a brother is burdened by loans. But is it okay to expect his sister to cough-up her hard-earned money and rescue him? Maybe it’s okay to ask for her help once, but it’s really not the sister’s burden to bear if she doesn’t want to. Perhaps a best friend is always ready to help. But is it mature to expect him to solve every issue?  Maybe the friend had the other one’s best interests at heart, but he’s bound to feel used after a point.

There’s a gap between our expectations and how that makes our loved ones feel. It’s how we create our own disappointments. As it is, relationships–of any kind–are hard. Expectations add fuel to the fire, I’ve found. A hardcore fiction lover, my head is often in the clouds. Naturally, the ground beneath my feet pokes me, forcing me to see past the fluff. Recently, I brought my relationships under the microscope to see why I’m constantly disappointed. It wasn’t a pretty sight; I’d opened a can of worms.

Firstly, I noticed that when I give relationship advice to others, I’m very practical. But when it comes to my own relationships, my expectations become unrealistic. Trust me, it wasn’t easy to accept my double-standard thinking. Secondly, I made it a point to be actively aware of my own discomforts when someone else expects something of me. It then hit me that I probably cause the same discomfort in others when I expect something unrealistic of them. Thirdly, I saw that others might be more comfortable if I’m open to their perspective and I communicate my expectations gently.

I’ve finally begun to understand the dynamics of expectations between loved ones. I can see what Ware means in his Tedx Talk. He speaks about how our preconceived notions set us up for disappointments. We have a selection bias that compels our mind to expect only the best of scenarios, he notes. It’s what makes expectations unrealistic and relationships sour. For someone like me, who has her head in the clouds, Ware’s explanation drives home a good reality check.

Subconsciously, we create mental images of a perfect partner who’ll share our dreams, of a spouse who’ll cater to all our needs, of a lover who’ll “just know” what we want. The next thing we know, our fantasy marital bliss is replaced by a real-time marital spat. Truth is, our reality rarely ever reflects our mind’s perfect image. Our relationships may never fulfil us if we enter them with a set of rigid ideas about what they should look like.

If we’re to have healthy relationships, we need to constantly reassess how realistic our expectations are. Knowing where they tip over into unhealthy territories is important. Indeed, expectations in relationships make for a delicate rope to tread. I’m still nowhere close to balancing my expectations of others, but I’m hopeful I’ll get there.

Anusha Shashidhar
Written by Anusha Shashidhar for Soulveda.
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