Expectations Based on Hope

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Some expectations were like untethered helium balloons; they were never grounded. Unlike those that are born out of our actual experiences, these reflected desire and imagined possibilities. Unlike the Psychological Recession which leads people to ignore the positive and fixate on the negative, these expectations were more often optimistic and reflected people’s hopes.

Despite disappointment after disappointment, one of my friends always began each new job with exuberance, convinced that all the employees she had just met were “wonderful human beings,” and the job was “a wonderful opportunity.” But over time the inevitable happened: parts of the job became routine and uninteresting and people acted like people. From my friend’s romanticized perspective that meant the job and the people were terribly flawed.

This buoyant optimism continued for years despite repeated disillusionment. Actually, it was the expectations of perfection that were the cause of the disillusionment. My friend needed to believe that perfection was a real possibility although experience demonstrated that wasn’t true.

My hunch is that idealized expectations are much more likely in personal relationships than they were in work situations because our personal relations were just that – personal. We typically brought stronger feelings to our personal sphere than we did to the less emotional universes of achievement. This simply means feeling bereft when things didn’t work out was much more likely in our personal life than it was in less personal situations. Being passed over for a promotion was a knife in our back; but a betrayal of love was being emboweled.

Many people, I think, seek salvation in relationships; not simply salvation from being saved from loneliness but salvation in terms of being lovable. And it follows as night and day that in our romance-filled culture the person who loves us was imbued by us, if only for a fleeting time, with the aura of perfection. But expectations of perfection almost inevitably lead to disappointment.

We give up our romantic view and expectations of perfection reluctantly, therefore, slowly. But people who are basically pretty psychologically healthy and in a pretty good relationship gradually come to acknowledge imperfections in the other person, in the relationship, and eventually, in themselves. Reality drives this perception and we express these changes with phrases like, He’s human; No one’s perfect. With maturity we can see imperfection and be at peace with it.

But that doesn’t always happen. I have recently become aware of a widespread pattern of behavior in which an ex-spouse or partner is out to get the ex long after the divorce or split-up was settled.

One of my best friends and his wife were divorced almost 10 years ago. During the divorce process their property was divided 50:50 and they shared childcare the same way. The agreed upon settlement, therefore, was fair to both parties.

That worked reasonably well for years. But over the last 2 or 3 years the ex-wife is apparently on a path of rage and destruction despite the terrible damage she was doing to their children. On the surface this seems to make no sense: she had two children, a new husband, was a professional in business for herself, has friends…in other words her life seems okay or even pretty good. Why, then is she so angry and vengeful?

Perhaps, despite outward appearances, she’s been hugely disappointed in how her life turned out. In other words, whatever her expectations were about marriage, motherhood, work, life…they have not been met.

Expectations that were based on desire or wishes were often magical as in, When I’m married; when I have a house, when I have a kid; when I land this deal; when I’m divorced – everything will be perfect.

But “perfect” was short-lived at best. “Perfect” guarantees disappointment and frustration…over and over. That often leads to even more grandiose magical thoughts…and frustration.

If life continuously disappoints, the sane next step was to begin to acknowledge that you are, to some extent partly responsible. But that was exactly what was not happening in this case. Experience was not leading to greater self-awareness. Instead, the reverse is occurring. The ex-wife had no insight into why she never achieved the personal fulfillment she expected. She had displaced any responsibility from her self on to her former husband just as she did when the marriage was breaking up. But now that anger is uncaged, multiplied by some huge factor. She seems bent on destroying her ex-spouse irrespective of consequences.

Perhaps the common thread in this increasingly common pattern was first, a Peter Pan refusal to grow up and second, idealized and thus unattainable expectations of what life will be like. Grown up people agree with John Lennon who said, Life is what happens when you’re planning something else, and they also know that no one ever really promised anyone a rose garden because they can’t deliver it. That’s life!

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