Dr. Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
Expectations Based on Hope
Some expectations are like untethered helium balloons; they’re never grounded. Unlike those that are born out of our actual experiences, these reflect desire and imagined possibilities. Unlike the Psychological Recession which leads people to ignore the positive and fixate on the negative, these expectations are more often optimistic and reflect people’s hopes.
Despite disappointment after disappointment, one of my friends always began each new job with exuberance, convinced that all the employees she’d 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 are in work situations because our personal relations are just that – personal. We typically bring stronger feelings to our personal sphere than we do to the less emotional universes of achievement. This simply means feeling bereft when things don’t work out is much more likely in our personal life than it is in less personal situations. Being passed over for a promotion is a knife in our back; but a betrayal of love is 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 the day that in our romance-filled culture the person who loves us is 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, (S)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’ve 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’s doing to their children. On the surface this seems to make no sense: she has two children, a new husband, is 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 are based on desire or wishes are 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” is 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 is to begin to acknowledge that you are, to some extent partly responsible. But that is exactly what is not happening in this case. Experience is not leading to greater self-awareness. Instead, the reverse is occurring. The ex-wife has no insight into why she never achieves the personal fulfillment she expects. She has displaced any responsibility from herself 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 is 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!