I recently met a single dad who, when asked his parenting philosophy said, “expectations.” I think many, if not most parents would say the same. We have expectations of all kinds in life. I work at my job, and I expect to be paid and paid on time. I sacrifice food I might like to eat, and I expect to lose weight. We could go on and on about things we expect. Expectations are necessary in the market economy of value exchange. If I had an employee that stopped working, I should not be expected to continue paying him or her. A value for value exchange is how we treat each other in the marketplace. I exchange something I have for something I consider to be of higher value to me. The other party considers the thing they received to be of higher value to them than what they gave me. Both people win.
We often mistakenly bring our transactional relationship patterns from the marketplace into the home and our social relationships—where we want to experience a deeper and more total experience of love. I want to love my people as children of God and because they are mine. I want them to know that I love them because of who they are and not because of a fair exchange of value. Expectations are the enemies of unconditional love because, by definition, they are conditions we place on our love. Expectations tell our loved ones, in effect, “If you can change to be the way I want you to be, then I will love you.”
When I was growing up, I knew if I made good grades, succeeded in athletics, became an eagle scout, and served in the church, my parents loved me. When I didn’t meet their expectations, they loved me less. That experience of childhood is extremely common if not universal (ask my kids). As a result, we learn to measure ourselves by our transactional value instead of our inherent worth. When do our spouses or children most need our love? Probably when we are least inclined to give it.
We are mortal and we all operate our relationships with expectations to some extent. I expect Cathy to be faithful. It seems like a reasonable expectation, right? But if she decided to violate that expectation, what could I really do about it? I would have choices to make about the relationship at that point. But there is nothing I could do to stop her from carrying out that decision. (To be abundantly clear, this example is purely hypothetical, and not something I believe I will ever actually confront.)
I have seen spouses make themselves and their partners crazy trying to monitor them and stop them from being unfaithful. It never really works. Cathy is faithful because she chooses that as a matter of integrity and love for me—not because I place an expectation on her. If I had to monitor her every minute to stop her from cheating, what would her faithfulness be worth?
Expectations create a sense of obligation, which eventually becomes a crushing burden. If you are divorced, consider whether your former spouse felt crushed under the burden of your expectations. Don’t dismiss the question out of hand. Really ponder it. Were you hard to please and dissatisfied a lot of the time? I know everyone has a story. I also know no one is perfect. I think this is a question worth pondering, even if your spouse mistreated you.
At this point you may be thinking, “So, what? Am I supposed to be a doormat and let people walk all over me? Am I supposed to have no standards at all?”
Resisting the temptation to hang expectations on people is not about lowering your standards or setting yourself up for abuse. It is about honoring agency. It is letting go of the need to control the people around you so you can be happy. It is about valuing people for what they are more than for what they do.
Do your children exist to make you proud? No. It’s great when they do. But they exist because they are inherently valuable children of Our Father in Heaven with Divine potential. The parents who are most exacting about their children’s performance are living vicariously through them.
If you have ever watched the TV show “Friday Night Lights,” you may remember the talented young quarterback, JD McCoy. His father was very demanding about his football performance, often contradicting JD’s coach, putting JD in the impossible condition of trying to serve two masters. Mr. McCoy tried to micromanage JD’s life to maximize his performance on the football field and smothered him in the process. At one point, he physically assaulted JD in public when JD resisted some of his criticism and coaching.
Of course, this is a fictional story and an extreme example of what happens when parents get too invested in their expectations of their kids. If you have had a child in Little League baseball, you’ve seen fathers that behave, to some extent, like JD’s father. It happens in a lot of other areas of life too. You might get performance out of your kids by pushing and punishing—for at least a while. But it comes at a heavy price. They will spend their lives doing backflips trying to get your approval and be vulnerable to external validation and manipulation as they grow into adulthood. They will follow these patterns in their own relationships with spouses and children. They will put unbelievable pressure on themselves to please other people and succeed for the validation they get from it. The lucky ones will wind up in therapy and figure this out. The rest will live in constant anxiety.
How do I set a standard without using expectations and punishments? First of all, I need to model the behavior I want to see. I can’t expect my spouse to be faithful if I am out there cheating on her right? I can’t be guilty of inappropriate conduct on my phone and expect her to avoid the same thing in using her phone. (Again, purely a hypothetical example.) So, the first thing I need to do to create standards is to focus on what I can control—and that is myself. And that means following the golden rule by treating her as I want her to treat me. That is especially true of our spouses and exclusive dating partners, but also true in other relationships.
Another important principle for creating standards is to create an environment where those standards are positively celebrated and supported. Try to be genuinely affirming when a child brings home a good report card or an award from school or sports. Try to do other things to create an atmosphere in your relationships where positive results are the norm and those involved believe achieving those positive results is fun. That can be true in your most intimate relationship too.
Cathy and I have both known divorce. But we know a few things we didn’t know during our first marriages. These include things about conflict management, creating a lopsided ratio of positive comments to negative ones, and the principle that “when you are in pain the world stops and I listen.” I could go on and on about things we’ve learned about making relationships work. We are still learning. I could also choose to punish my wife whenever she makes a mistake and doesn’t follow one of these principles perfectly. However, that would be counterproductive and, in fact, would violate some of the principles we’ve learned and agreements we’ve made.
What can I do instead? I can celebrate every time we successfully navigate a problem quickly, and with peaceful calmness. We do this a lot. I can celebrate that, the vast majority of the time, we think positively about each other and our relationship. We can celebrate creating a kind of love that neither of us ever had before. That will do a lot more to internalize our standards and reinforce our intentions than setting up expectations, punishing violations, and focusing on failure. Celebrating success focuses on success. Punishing failure focuses on failure. Remember, the famous admonition from Galatians 6, that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Sow success, water it, nurture it, and make sure it gets plenty of sunlight. Don’t stand over your plants yelling at them to grow faster.
Trying to set expectations for people and punish violations is setting yourself up for a very difficult life. Let me illustrate. Let’s suppose I have a good friend who is emotionally stuck in his divorce story. Every time I am with him, he talks about it constantly and I feel emotionally drained and dragged down by it. I could set expectations and tell him, “Look buddy, if you can’t start being more positive in our conversations, I’m going to have to stop hanging out with you.” That is an option. But there are other options.
I could decide to just be loving. I could accept that he needs to talk about it and do the thought work necessary to believe it has nothing to do with me. If I do this with a heart at peace, I might still believe that my friend’s constant recounting of his divorce story is not serving him or me. I could choose to simply try to create an environment and culture of positivity in the friendship. I could intentionally guide the conversation into a more positive space and try to help my friend feel hopeful. If he continues to guide it back into negative space, I’ll just persist in trying to guide it back to more positive and uplifting conversation. He has the choice whether to join me in positive space, but I can at least lead the conversation there.
If your son or daughter is not living up to his or her potential in school, there might be a place for some non-judgmental conversation about why this is occurring and what can be done. But, in the main, you will do better by creating an environment where kids optimistically anticipate being successful—not where they fear punishment for being unsuccessful and live in fear and anxiety about your displeasure.
We may have boundaries to uphold our own sense of self and our own agency. I can honor my spouse’s agency but insist that she not use that agency to physically assault me. In setting that boundary, I am not making a judgment of her or trying to take away her agency. I am protecting myself and honoring my own character and agency as a son or daughter of God. That is not a boundary we about in our marriage because both of us feel strongly that physical force has no place in a marriage and that simply has never been a part of our relationship. However, If my spouse ever did hit me or threaten to, I could say “I understand that you are upset. But I do not agree to be assaulted because you are upset. If this happens again, I am going to call the police.” That’s a boundary. You could have boundaries about all kinds of mistreatment, including yelling and screaming, cursing, dishonesty, name calling, cheating, or any other number of abusive behaviors. Unconditional love and acceptance is not allowing yourself to be abused.
Let me also be clear that you don’t get to have a boundary about your children’s homework or your spouse’s employment, or anything else that is outside your responsibility. Your spouse not making enough money or your children not making good enough grades is not a boundary violation.
I have known of at least two instances where two of the best men I know (who both made six figure incomes) were told by their wives that they had a deadline by which they had to buy them a house or they were filing for divorce. In both cases, I said “don’t meet the deadline.” Both of them ignored my advice. One of them got divorced anyway, and the other is in one of the most miserable marriages I’ve ever seen. Boundaries are about protecting your own agency and sense of self. They are not about coercion and taking away the agency of others.
So let me be clear. Expectations dishonor other people’s agency. You expect other people to perform in their own spheres up to certain standards to meet some need or desire of your own. It places unfair burdens on other people to be responsible for your happiness or well-being. Boundaries are merely giving clear consequences to protect yourself from abusive conduct. I don’t get to have a boundary about things that aren’t my business or my responsibility. Boundaries are to protect my agency—not to limit the agency of others.
I remember a parent I knew who often yelled at her kids, “Give me some d-mn respect!” Is that going to work? It works as long as they are afraid of you. But it doesn’t create real respect. The prophet Joseph Smith taught that real and lasting loyalty and only comes “without compulsory means.” (D&C 121:46.)
I have heard John Gottman attack the idea that expectations are bad by saying that research shows that people with high expectations do better in every area of life—including relationships. However, I think Gottman is talking about a different use of the word, “expectations.” He is talking about optimistic expectations. If I optimistically anticipate that my wife will be nice to me, I am more likely to treat her nicely and create the outcome I expect. If I create a negative “expectation” that she had better treat me nicely because I “expect” it, I am guarded and defensive, and much more likely to treat her poorly and create the opposite of what I want.
Feeling self-confident and expecting (or more accurately, anticipating) that I will be promoted at work is a healthy thing. An unhealthy expectation is where I am passed over for the promotion I expected and become punishing to whomever I choose to blame. If I expect a woman to continue dating me and she chooses not to, do I become punishing? It’s tempting right? It’s tempting to think that she owes me something because of how kind I’ve been to her. But unconditional love suggests that I will still be loving toward her, even if she doesn’t choose me, and even if I don’t understand or agree with her reasons. It means I will honor her agency.
The kind of expectation I am warning about objectifies other people. It is expecting other people to do or refrain from doing things to gratify my own pride or vain ambition (see D&C 121:37). It is putting my agenda for the other person ahead of that person’s own desires, decisions, and well-being.
I encourage you to consider how expectations and other controlling behaviors may have harmed your relationships in the past, and how they may be harming your relationships now. I encourage you to consider other ways of setting positive standards, rather than setting expectations and punishing violations of them. I encourage you to think about creating a positive culture of relationship (and other) success in your home and in your dating relationships, where you model the kind of character and success you want to encourage and decide to be intentional about setting standards through positive interaction, rather than expectations and punishments. When you are dating, practice this with your partners. Work on it together and see if the two of you can create deeper meaning and more happiness through the power of intention without interfering with each other’s agency.
Published in Meridian Magazine 1/16/23