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Once, in the midst of a particularly bad breakup, I was counseled by a good friend to expect more from people I was dating. “You deserve better,” she told me, earnestly. “And when you expect it, that’s when you’ll be treated that way.”
Her observation was well-intentioned (and likely correct), yet it made me bristle. The idea of “deserving” has always rung false with me; it seems somehow entitled to think that way, let alone to expect that what people get and what they deserve will ever have anything to do with each other.
We come into all relationships with expectations. In professional relationships, these are expectations are for the most part universal, and clear: We expect a doctor to diagnose and treat our illnesses, a bus driver to conduct the bus along the appointed route as safely and quickly as possible, a garbage collector to retrieve our bagged trash on the appointed days. These expectations circumscribed within these roles are mostly unambiguous, and the possibility for misunderstanding is limited.
In emotional relationships, the expectations are far murkier. The Greeks exemplified the diversity and nuance of emotional attachments with multiple words for “love”: Agape, godly love or benevolence; Eros, sexual passion; Philia, friendship or affection between equals; Storge, love between parents and children. Strains within relationships of all stripes are often the result of a mismatch of expectations, both about the intensity and the very nature of love itself. We expect, implicitly, that our feelings towards others will be mirrored back at us; discordance between that expectation and reality leave us feeling imbalanced, hurt, and even angry.
But perhaps the most vulnerable we feel is not in having the expectations, so much as in conveying them to others. At least, that’s been my experience. It can be hard and scary to tell someone, “I love you.” It is harder still to ask for love in return, however basic and universal a human need it may be. To explain how we need to be loved is the hardest yet—perhaps because it requires more self-knowledge than many of us possess. To have reasonable and viable expectations of others requires us to be fully cognizant of our own wants and needs, and aware of what role—if any—another person can play in helping us to create the lives we want.
In that respect, it can feel terribly exposing to have expectations of those closest to us, when the threat of misunderstanding or rejection is ever-present. Yet, it is also imperative that we do so: To be open to meaningful human connection, one must convey oneself fully and vulnerably to another person, making one’s own expectations known, as well as being ready to receive the expectations of another reciprocally and empathetically.
It’s scary to have expectations of others, to constantly subject oneself to the possibility of being hurt. “We all make mistakes,” I wrote in a (slightly overwrought) email to the ex who had spurned me, “But we have to tread carefully with those we brush closest to in life and love.” And in the end, it’s what we must do to make any meaningful connections in life—maintain our expectations that we’ll be treated with empathy and care, and meet each new encounter with all the optimism and hope that that entails.
Ilana Garon lives, writes, and teaches in New York City. She is the author of "Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?": Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).