The Problem with Expectations

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Recently, I saw a lot of people writing about their expectations about marriage and dating.  They seemed in a lot of distress and hurt, and I thought about how much better off I felt at this point in my life to not get caught in the traps that expectations create.  Then I recalled that, while I had studied these problems some years ago, and come to new understandings the helped me avoid those traps, I had never shared online what I had learned.  So here goes.

It seems to me that I’ve got to deal with three topics: 

  1. Frustrations (in general),
  2. Expectations (in specific), and
  3. Growing Up.

Frustrations (in general)

Simply put, a Frustration is an event in time when you want something and cannot get it easily.  We all want things: an icecream cone, a new car, some quiet time, a reliable partner.  When you want one of these things, and believe that obtaining your desire may be a problem, you enter into the stages of a frustration.  Take a look at the chart below.  (For a full presentation of the "gold" within Frustrations click here.)


Anger Phase

This follows immediately after you notice the blockage, and is automatic.  The event, anger, is hard-wired into all creatures, lizards, mammals, and humans.  It happens whether you notice it or not.  Remember that Anger, like all emotions, has a how muchness to it – an intensity.  You may have it your body below your awareness level, or it may be bursting out.  The purpose of the Anger phase is to raise your energy so that you may push through the blockage.  The body chemical that makes this work is nor-epinephrine.  A lion that sees a gazelle (dinner) on the other side of a grassy area, loads up on the energizing chemistyr, the emotion of Anger, so that it can run faster.  A person who wants to be heard, loads up on Anger so that they can speak louder.  This is  normal.  If the action you do, supercharged by the emotion/chemistry of Anger, helps you obtain what you desire, then you a) move on through life and b) learn to use the same action again in a similar situation.   

Grieving Phase

This occurs automatically at that point when you believe that you cannot get what you desire, even with the assistance of the emotion of Anger – when you give up.   It is hard wired in mammals and humans.  It happens whether you are aware or not.  The purpose of the Grieving phase is to “adjust your body and memory” to living, to moving on, without obtaining your desire.   Your dog that chases your car in the morning when you drive away, gives up, and goes through a grieving period at the loss of its “friend.”  Then it goes on through its life.   Humans do the same thing.  We are built to recover smoothly from loss.  The body chemical that makes this work in prolactin – the emotion is grief.

These two emotion cycles goes on all the time during our lives.  They are easy to watch in others, and easy for others to see in us. 

Desire and Intensity

Generally speaking, the more you desire or want something, the higher the intensity of Anger, and/or the more the Grieving is necessary.  If you see someone very angry, usually you can assume that they have some very strong desire and they are experiencing a significant blockage.  If you see someone grieving very hard, usually you can assume that their loss is great.  The free, safe, and wise flowing of these emotions are critical to living a happy life.  (This can be different in among people.  We have the capacity to store unexpressed anger and grief.  We sometimes let the emotion flow and thus large amounts of anger or large amounts of grief may appear with small frustrations.  See my paper on the Flow of Energy in Emotions.)

Troubles with Anger

Probably the biggest problem with Anger is that we are not taught how to express it freely, safely, and wisely.  And yet, it occurs in our body to a greater and lessor extent whenever we do not seem to be getting what we want.  I think this problem of poor anger expression is a legacy of the poor parenting we do of our children.  I am not blaming parents.  In my opinion, parents do their best.  But frequently their best is not very good, and this is one place where they fall short.  Anger is such a valuable emotion. 

Anger empowers us to maintain our boundaries and is part of what empowers us to become the maginificent humans we are born to be.  Expressing Anger freely, safely, and wisely is a remarkably healthy thing to do.   Still most people have trouble with both their own anger and with that of others.  (See my papers on Emotions.)  Unexpressed anger leads to chronic muscular contraction, tensness, and to the host of problems that leads to – including, depression and shortening our lives.  Unsafely expressed anger leads to material costs, and potential jail time.  (See my story of the Trouble with a Short Temper.)  Unwisely expressed anger, while often leading to short-term solutions, eventually leads to relationship distancing, loneliness, and isolation.

Yet here, with every blocked desire, we have anger and we have a chance to express it wisely or foolishly. 

While not expressing anger is a problem, applying Anger’s high energy at a time when “higher energy” will not solve the blockage faced is also foolish.  In these situations, I think it wise to express the energy of Anger, and then later use a little of its energy to solve the problem that maybe will be solved better by sharing of data and trying out solution ideas.  (See my paper on Problem Solving.)

And finally, because in most of our culture Anger is considered a “bad” emotion, the emergence of Anger often leads to a kind of disconnection or withdrawing from others.  “I will go off and do anger in my room alone.”  

Troubles with Grieving

This emotion, grief, is a life enhancing emotion, and yet many of us are taught to suppress expressing grief.  We need it to move forward every time we don’t, and can’t, get what we want.  If we do not grieve, we carry in our bodies the losses from our past.  I think most people I see have several dozens of hours of crying inside them.   And yet I, and so many others I have met, were taught not to cry – were shamed for needing to cry.  This, I believe, is probably the most unhealthy teaching of our frequently unhealthy culture.  Not grieving over loss is just a way of storing up higher distress for the next time you face loss.  How silly!

Oh, and another thing.  Many people are taught to grieve when they are angry.  I’ve seen this done when a little girl was furious about losing a ballet competition.  She stood there shaking with anger, and her mother put her arms around her daughter and said, “Go ahead and cry, honey.  It’s ok.”    What this means is that when you see your partner weeping, you have to be on guard for them to slip into anger.  I think it ok to hold and physically a grieving person, but not a good idea to hold or even be physically close to an angry person.

Again, grieving is often considered a “bad” emotion.   I find that men particularly are often taught that grieving is “unmanly.”   Thus the presence of grief can often lead to a kind of disconnection and withdrawing from others.

Thus our problems with our ability to grief effectively gets tested each time we face the loss of something we want. 

Repetition and Frustrations

A frustration can have a much higher level of Anger and/or Grief, when the same desire is blocked over and over.  This, to me, is a bit like running into the same frustrating situation again and trying to push through that blockage one more time.  History, and experience counts.  This is especially true of childhood frustrations which come to be repeated in adulthood.  And the situation where this always seems to happen is in committed relationships and marriage.  Because this happens almost universally, I have a whole section on my website on how to do with “Healing” these childhood wounds.  

Summary of Frustrations

 (in General)Frustrations demonstrate a normal process of living life – wanting something, being blocked, getting energized, and then relaxing into letting go.  The process is made difficult by lack of wise training in expression of Anger and Grief, and by repetition of the same frustration.   (For more on Frustrations, see my papers on this topic.)

Expectations (in specific)

An Expectation is a Frustration in with a sense of ownership complicates things.  Boundaries become involved and boundary skills involve Anger as well.  (See my paper on Boundaries for Individuals.)  An easy way to grasp the difference between wanting something and expecting something involves a belief that when I expect something, I have decided that is is already “mine.”  Thus when I experience some blockage, it feels as if someone is robbing me of what is mine.  The Anger, that appears when someone takes away that which you think is yours, can be very intense.  One defends one’s property vigorously.   And the Grief at losing that which is yours can be profound.

Ownership, Entitlement

The little thing that makes for these supercharged reactions is a small mental process of deciding that the desired object or act is deserved, ought to happen, is mine, is owed me, I have a right to, belongs to me.  Technically this process was called, by Freud, “cathecting libidinal energy.”  Don’t try to remember that!  Just recall that we, humans and animals, have the capacity of treating an act or object as if it were part of us – part of our body.  And then we act as if anyone blocking our “having that act or object” is stealing from us.  And we can do this process “assuming ownership” with no regard to any other person’s needs or wants.


Many years ago, I recall watching my 3–year-old daughter approaching a very friendly dog.  He was a great big white-colored Labrador Retriever.  She could hang on him, push him, lie up against him, pull his ears and tail, almost ride on him, and he would just look around lovingly and patiently.  But this time he was eating his dinner from his dog bowl on our back porch.  She reached out to pull the bowl, and he growled viciously,  snapped his teeth, and drew some blood from her hand.  Here was the issue of expectations.  The point I am trying to make is that we can decide what is ours and what is not.  We can want something and then work to get it.  But if we decide that “it is ours,” we will defend our possessions.  Defending our posessions vs. working to obtain our desires are very different situations.


This is very different from a normal frustration.  Years ago I was on board a Navy ship in the Tonkin Gulf off Viet Nam.  The Johnson administration was quite distressed by the activities of North Viet Nam.  Johnson wanted more cooperation from the Vietnamese.  But how to get it.  He or his advisors, chose to create an ‘expectation situation that was robbed.‘  Then the United States could be mobilized behind “Righteous Defending.”  The plan was to provoke the North Vietnamese into sinking or damaging one of our Navy ships.  I was on the ship chosen for this little drama.  Then Navy did provocative ship movements within Vietnamese waters.  Then our ship was sent to replace those provocative ships.  Our ship was in bad need of repair, could only cruise and maneuver at very slow speeds.  Certainly could not outmaneuver North Vietnamese patrol boats that had torpedoes.  The plan was that we would be sunk or damaged, and then the Johnson administration could mobilize the “Righteous Anger” of Americans behind some sort of escalation of forces in the area around Viet Nam.  Apparently they decided they didn’t need our deaths as part of their political plans, as they called off the plan in its midst.  And they got from Congress the Gulf of Tonkin resolution anyway.  Oh, and I imagine my wife and children would have felt a great sense of diminishment at my death.


By thinking I am entitled to something, I shift from “trying to get it” to “defending my property.”   And, I use the same skills of anger that I would use if someone were taking money from my wallet, kidnapping my kid, stealing my car.  In fact, one of the ways I recognize this sense of entitlement, is that I begin looking around for some authority to appeal to in “getting back” what I thought was mine.   Also, Grieving, the situation when I cannot get that thing, becomes dealing with a sense of becoming smaller.  “Some of my stuffing is lost.”  It is like losing your home to a fire. 

This bit of about ownership also leads to a kind of disconnection from the “thing owned.”  When I own you, I may treat you more like an inanimate object, I may objectify you, and thus lose my connection with your humanity.  I lose awareness of you as a person. 

Summary on Entitlement

The tremendous power of Entitlement is the shift to ideas of ownership and to holding on to, defending property.  The level of anger jumps much higher , the sense of loss and the grieving become intense, and the disconnection becomes greater.  And all this happens because we make that little event – we decide we are entitled.

Growing Up

Now I come to the most exciting part of this paper.  Solutions!  I am first going to quote from a wonderful book by the great leader in the field of Psychology, Dr. William Glasser.  In his book, Choice Theory, he shares many of the ideas that helped me formulate the last portion of my thinking on relationship. 

“Without really thinking about ownership, most of us divide the world into two groups.   The first group, those we own or try to own (or whose behavior we try to own and control), is made up of lovers, wives, husbands, children, students, and employees.   The second group, those we don’t own or try to own, usually a large group, consists of good friends; acquaintances; people who have some power over us, such as bosses; and, of course strangers.  A good way to learn about ..(Friend-Friend relating).. is to take a close look at how you treat your best friend, your boss, and most strangers compared to how you treat the rest of the people in your life.  You know why you don’t try to force your boss or your friend.  You rarely force acquaintances, and, if you have any sense at all, you will never force strangers because you may get hurt or killed.   Why don’t we live and let live …(with the people that are closest to us)?  Most of us believe that we should or do own our husbands, wives, children, students, and employees.”

Here, then, is the problem of expectations.  We use anger and our tempers on people who we feel are robbing us of what they “should” be giving us – what is ours.   Look at this chart.


I suggest you ponder these two lists in your life and ponder that phrase “Shifting Lists.” 

One of the enormous issues of relationship problem is that we start our friendship with a new partner using respectful relating and then as we get to know each other better, we switch our partner to the other list and start treating them dis-respectfully.  We start “taking them for granted.”  We dis-respectfully act as if we own them.  (Check out my paper on Master/Slave.)

When you reach age 7. that is the Cross-over.

Take a look at how Parents end up on both lists: as “Anyone, when we are born” and as our “superiors”.  This is tricky.  I believe that when we are born, we are entitled, because of our biological and developement needs, to lots of caretaking from our caretakers.  We have, I believe, a fairly lengthy period of “Expectations,” not just desires and wants.  I think the end of this “period of nurturing,” this entitlement period, is around age 7 or 8.  Our job as adults and caretakers is to help our children in making this shift.  The way I say it is, “Up until age 8 you are Entitled to everything.  After age 8, you are lucky to get Oxygen to breathe.  After age 8 you have to earn everything you get.”  Yet many people make it into adulthood expecting people to meet their needs.  This is especially true in friend and partner relationships, and become a huge problem in marriages.  And so I say, to myself and to everyone, “Grow Up.” 


Can I say it more simply?  When you hug your partner, learn to look over their shoulder and find their price tag.  (Check out my paper on Earn what you want.)

Here’s a story.  I was working with a man yesterday.  He has a very specific pattern that appears as a sex-addiction.  As we worked on validating him, we found at his core a memory of an event when he was about 10.  He came out of a bathroom, naked.  His grandmother was at the bottom of the stairs and saw him.  He froze.  She looked him up and down, saw his penis, and said, “Wow.  How disappointing!” And then she walked way.  (This is what I call a Curse.  I believe we adults have this power over the lives of children.  We can Bless and we can Curse.) He had told his parents about this and they had laughed at him.  Now, at age 35, he has a long painful history of finding women who are disgusted by men and who specifically disrespect his genitals.  And so he hides from them and seeks out pornography in which older women like penises.  His behavior makes sense.   I suggested he tell his wife and say, “I would like to find out what I can do for you that would make you inclined to act lovingly toward my genitals, and to help heal this nightmare I live with.”   I think it might be an interesting dialogue.



The Problem with Expectations — 6 Comments

  1. Dear Al,
    I think a lot of my frustrations come from creating expectations in my mind. I think I spend a great deal of my time posturing as an introvert, and I have trouble keeping my thought process dialogical. I tend to have daydreams where I project, positively and negatively, about something or someone in my life. I think I lose touch with reality when I concoct these projections. I think my lizard has a hard time relaxing because I create. I think that I have a difficult time "living in the moment", because I think it is necessary to dwell on these thoughts, like I am obligated to be a thinking man at all times. I'm really exhausted with analyzing my thoughts and other people's actions. I also can't seem to get out of other people heads, like I'm always trying to predict what is possibly going through other people's minds and how they perceive me and my actions. I think I begin to look back and analyze things I've said and done, even before the converstaion or event is over. I get lost in my head. What do you suggest? I've tried using your one-liners as mantras, and sometimes they help, but usually I get the better of myself and allow these "fantasies" to unfold.
    I guess I should also tell you that I consider myself a concept sketch artist, and that these "flights of fancy" sometimes have a positive purpose, as they allow me to broaden my imagination. So I guess I still would like to embark on these mind projections, but I would like to do it responsibly.
    Thank you for your time and advice. You've been one of the most helpful human beings in my life these past few years, and I will always be grateful for your wisdom.

    • Dear Johnny,

      Yup. Two different things come to mind.

      When I was little, I was aware I was quite different from other people and had to work very hard to keep "how different I was" from them. It was a bitch. Eventually I came to hear about the Ugly Duckling (and later "The Women Who Run with the Wolves", etc.) Once I got the idea that 3 month before I was worn, a thick manual was Fedexed to my parents. It was called The Operation Manual for Al Turtle, and it contained lots of details about what I would need to be a happy, whole person. Somehow the manual got lost in transit. I've had to rewrite it during my adult life by reading through all the troubles I've had. You sound as if you are working on the Operation Manual for Johnny.

      Second thought is about finding your "home" or your "family" of your kind of Swans. I like the idea that a Mentor is a person who is a bunch older and who has lived through the kinds of problems you are facing – who can demonstrate by their breathing body that one can live through the learning process. My guess is that you sound like someone who belongs to the Fire Clan. (Read Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Some.)

      Tough. Good luck.

  2. Well, to get across my thougths it might be useful to think of launching the Space Shuttle. Let's make this about three different events: a) before the launch, b) what happens during the launch and c) after the launch.
    As I understand it, human kids are the least prepared for life (at the time of birth) of any creatures on earth. Human kids continue developing critical skills for years after birth and require much support and many resources from their caretakers for quite a time. Child development is quite a wonderful study, which you can learn from better educational resources that I am.
    Somewhere between 6 and 8 a kid shifts to being self-sufficient or at least able to be a full human with integrity at the brain development level any way. I don't think of them as completely developed yet, since they miss the ability for abstract thinking. But they begin the process of disconnecting from their caretakers and enter into peer relationships at this age. This is analogous to all the excitement of the space shuttle as is goes onto its own power, launches up, picks up speed, finally settles into orbit. Kind of wild!
    From now on human kids are learning the skills of getting along and witnessing others getting along in a social world. They may not be very well trained (but then many adults seem pretty untrained – consider our congress at times 🙂 ), but I believe they automatically tend to think of themselves as unique and independent.
    Before this “switch over” they depend on their caretakers. After this change, they increasingly learn self-sufficiency, and their need for their caretakers recedes into the background. This is normal.
    This is my image that I have come to over quite a few years. It works for me, so I keep it and share it.
    I think the task of caretakers is to assist this “natural” process. To under nurture a kid under this age, I think, is just as bad as over-nurturing a kid over that age. Both, I think could easily fall into the arena of damaging growing people.
    So for me, I use the humorous phrase “lucky to get Oxygen” to challenge people to encourage themselves and others to break up any neotanous behaviors that we humans tend to display – childish behaviors in adults. I like to remind people that, as adults, they have to earn what they get.
    Tis just my thinking. Hope this helps.

  3. I am curious to hear more about why you believe that children are “entitled” only until the age or 7 or 8.
    Would you please expand on your views, experience and beliefs as to what happens at the age of 7 or 8 that triggers the being lucky to get O2 and needing to earn everything one gets.
    Best regards,
    Melanie from LA

  4. Hi Al,
    I'm wondering – what's the best way to deal with disappointment? F'rex: My H and I have recently started your Caring Days exercise. Yesterday, it was my turn to be cared for. I listed 6 things, he did 2 of them during the day and 2 more right at bed time. 2 things didn't get done at all. The point of the exercise is not that ALL things should be done, so it would seem that this is an example of a rather decent performance of the exercise.
    Still, I had a hard time keeping myself from feeling disappointed. Of course, the 2 things he didn't manage to do were the 2 things that I wanted most. 🙂
    My first instinct is to ask him to be more vocal about the requests. I feel fine if he doesn't manage to do all of them, as long as he acknowledges they're there, and hasn't just 'forgotten' them. “Honey, I know you wanted to go out for a walk in the park tonight, but I really have this thing from work and I'll be distracted and stressed if I don't finish this first.” Or even, “Sorry, I didn't manage to get you flowers because I completely forgot about it until I walked in the door.”
    As you may guess, it's a sore spot for me. He often promises things and doesn't come through – either 'forgetting' completely or starting at the last possible minute and then (understandably) finding out that the thing he promised to do won't take that short a time! Then he wants to reschedule, which would have been fine by me if he'd asked me before the promised date, instead of on or after it. Now, I'm still willing to reschedule, but I really want a hug and a 'yeah, I messed up today. Forgive me?' or something like that. He hates being reminded or asked for plans, and he hates apologising, but I hate just KNOWING that he'll renege on a particular promise and just having to sit there & watch it happen. And still he's frustrated when he gets the idea that I don't trust him! I'm sure that's not a nice realisation, and I do trust him with a lot of things, but not always with his word.
    Is it a good thing to ask him to at least verbally acknowledge things he won't be able to do, or is it counterproductive? I don't want to get on his case for not doing the exercise 'right' (= as I wanted him to do it) because that's not exactly motivating, but I don't want to lie & tell him I'm on cloud 9 either. And I haven't yet been able to work through these disappointments myself.
    When are you allowed to 'expect' something? When I'm promised something, I want to be able to expect either the fulfillment of the promise or a rescheduling, or be 'allowed' to help him remember or ask for details.
    And the other way around: how do you deal with another person's disappointment? One of his requests this morning was for me to make him a cup of coffee. My morning schedule is already really cramped, whereas he does nothing in the morning. (Literally. I get up, have breakfast, feed the cats, do my morning exercises. He gets up approximately half an hour later than I do, has a cup of coffee because he can't eat in the mornings and watches tv until he has to leave.) Which is fine, but making him a cup of coffee that's not too cold to drink when he gets up or too hot to finish before he has to leave would entail me pausing my morning exercises to do this for him. I'd be really uncomfortable with that, bacause my mornings are already full and I really don't want to have to get up even earlier, since I get too little sleep as it is. And besides, all the parts of my morning routines serve a really important purpose to me. 🙂 So – I told him I wouldn't be able to meet this request. Which is fine, because not all the requests have to be met. But still, he was disappointed and immediately got kinda stressed and distant. Which is normal, I guess – I was disappointed too, even though it would have been less if he had talked to me about it, but still I just hate that! All my alarm bells start ringing, especially when he adds things like 'I thought maybe your morning routine wasn't that important to you.' I immediately feel I have to knuckle under and give up what I want to make sure he's not disappointed, which makes me want to rebel and tell him that I'm important here, too, you know? I'm kinda sensitive to criticisms like that (and he's quite generous with them – he has all these ways that things 'should' be done and has in the past often told me I'm wrong for not wanting them exactly that way) so it's insta-stress for me.
    I try to validate his feelings, but so far fail miserably. I think I have the Pre-Validation thing down pat. Of course he makes sense, I believe that with every fiber of my being. But very often when I try to validate him, in the end he'd be shocked that I didn't come over to his position. He often tells me “It's impossible to convince you of anything!” Which is true in a way, I suppose. When I have an opinion, I'm generally convinced I'm right. Otherwise I'd have selected another opinion. When he has great arguments that completely blow mine out of the water, I'm happy to adopt this new-and-improved opinion. When his arguments and mine can happily live side-by-side, I'm sticking with mine, even though his are logical, too – they're just not mine.
    So, when I try to validate him and focus completely on validating him, we'll be in a fight afterwards because I'm 'too stubborn.' When I validate him while reminding me I have a different opinion, it doesn't seem to make him feel validated at all, and we'll still be in a fight. Of course he makes sense, but I want there to be a space for my sense too in this relationship! (And I guess it even makes sense for him to think I don't make sense, but it still sucks.)
    Well, sorry for this long and not particularly on-topic diatribe. I hope you can offer me a clue or two to make this whole mess somewhat easier.

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