Expecting the Worst

By: Jon Henshaw, M.A.

Have you ever felt like your significant other can only see things their way? You want to talk to them about something that's important or upsetting to you, but before you get a few words out, they're on the defensive trying to prove their point. The end result is usually feelings of anger and often bitterness. And as time goes on, this pattern increases along with your frustration.

Unfortunately, this very common pattern can be devastating to relationships, as couples learn to expect the worst from each other. Some people begin avoiding all confrontations for the sake of maintaining (pseudo) peace, while others escalate confrontations (in an effort to fix the problems) which usually lead to verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Regardless, both reaction styles result in bitterness, resentment and often divorce.

When couples reach their breaking point, the first question they often ask is, "How did we get here?" They remember a time when they did get along, but they're not sure how or why. I often ask couples, "When you did get along in the past, what was different from how things are now?" The most common responses are:

As couples clarify the differences between the past and present, one thing always surfaces to the top. A change in expectations. At some point in their relationship there was what I like to call an Expectation Shift. An Expectation Shift is a shift from expecting the best from each other, to expecting the worst (or vice-versa).

The Expectation Shift grows quickly into a bad habit. A habit of expecting their partner to be defensive, disrespectful and stubborn. In fact, many couples have stated that they feel their partner acts like they're out to get them. As the habit continues, couples begin to feel that they are living with an enemy, instead of a partner.

As with most relationship difficulties, there is hope. Although hope often comes in the form of marriage counseling with a good counselor or therapist, there are things couples can do to create an Expectation Shift in the other direction. Below are a few suggestions/exercises couples can try.

  1. By yourself (in a quiet place), think about and write down what you expect from your partner when you engage them in conversations that involve decision making and confrontation. (This exercise is to be done by both partners).
  2. Get your partner and go over your list of expectations. This is not a time to argue whether each other is right or wrong, it's a time to listen to each other.
  3. When doing this exercise, practice using "I" statements when you express your feelings and thoughts. For example, try not to say, "you make me feel . . ." Instead, use statements like, "I feel hurt when . . ." , "I need . . ."
  4. Agree with each other that you're not out to get each other, and that you're on the same team! Then agree for both of you to make an effort to expect the best from each other, not the worst. If both of you can truly agree to this, and commit to doing this, you will be amazed at how well communicating and resolving conflict can be.

Bad habits are easily made, but are difficult to break. This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Don't expect miracles to happen overnight. Instead, expect to work hard to resolve conflict and communicate more effectively. Your reward? A closer and more fulfilling relationship with your partner and friend.

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