I asked my 10-year-old daughter to help me make dinner the other night; soon after that, I got caught on the phone. When I finally emerged from my office 40 minutes later, I found that Fiona had already prepared our whole meal—the table was set, and dinner was waiting. I was beside myself with delight.
Few things are more satisfying than having someone exceed our expectations. But around the house, it seems like more often we’re annoyed or disappointed when someone fails to meet those expectations—when, once again, our spouse is late, or the kids didn’t take out the garbage, or someone failed to help clean up, or wasn’t really listening while we were baring our soul, or doesn’t really “get” us. Living with others is, in many ways, living in a constant state of unmet expectations.
I think we expect too much from our spouses these days. But that doesn’t mean it would always be better to lower our expectations so that we can feel happy or grateful when our spouse surprises us. If we lower the bar too much, especially for our spouses, how will any of our needs ever be met?
So what else can we do?
We can develop constructive ways of responding when our needs aren’t being met by our spouses and our children—techniques that increase the odds that they will be met in the future. Here are three alternatives to nagging—or harboring resentment—when your expectations aren’t met.
1) Do nothing. Sometimes we just need to acknowledge a disappointment, then let it go without taking further action. When Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist with loads of first-hand experience and scientific knowledge about real-life ecstasy, feels upset or uncomfortable, she just looks at her watch and waits 90 seconds before letting herself think about whatever upset her. Loads of research on “rumination” suggests that people who dwell on some hurt or distress are way more likely to feel depressed or dissatisfied with their lives. Sometimes we make ourselves feel worse—we prolong pain and frustration—by thinking too much about our disappointments.
2) Inspire the person who disappointed you. Even though we sometimes really want to unleash on a spouse who left the house without so much as clearing their breakfast dishes, whining and criticizing (or yelling, as the case may be) is not going to make your partner (or teenager, or pre-schooler) really want to help the next time. Negativity rarely inspires others.
The “ERN” method, something I devised long ago from piles of academic journal articles to motivate my kids to do boring but necessary tasks, also works well with adults. The gist of it is to use Empathy, Rationale, and Non-controlling language to get what we want, as those are the things that research shows are most motivating to people. It might go something like this:
Empathy: “I know you are anxious about your upcoming review and need to get into work earlier these days.”
Rationale: “I need more help on school days because Max has been late to school three times this week. I won’t be able to shake this cough if I keep getting up so early. I’m doing my best, but I can’t do it all by myself.”
Non-controlling language (or “not-being-so-bossy”): “It would be great if you could help me tomorrow morning. Is that a possibility?”
Admittedly, this is much harder than nagging your spouse and kids. But think about it: Would you rather someone insist you do something (“You HAVE to help me with the lunches in the morning!! I have a cold and a full time job, and I can’t wake up any earlier or I’ll just get SICKER!!!!”) or gently enlist your help?
3) Pick a Fight… but in a constructive way. Again, this is about finding more constructive ways to express what you want. So even though you might want to punish that guy who didn’t get you so much as a card last week on Valentine’s Day, making him feel as bad as you do won’t make you feel better, and it won’t make next Valentine’s Day more promising.
Make your disappointment known by starting off on a positive note. Yes, you read that right. In fact, begin with a statement of appreciation.
“I really appreciate how much time you’ve been spending with me in the evenings. I love going for a walk with you at night.”
That gets your cardless-wonder’s attention, and makes them open to listening to what you have to say. Then, staying as calm and positive as possible, make your feelings known with a good ol’ “I” statement.
“I felt really lonely and disappointed and actually a little bit abandoned when you decided we didn’t need to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It hurt that you didn’t even get me a card.”
Finally, tell that Valentine’s-Day-denier what you need—really clearly and specifically, explain what they can do to make it up to you. What exactly are your expectations? I recommend making it an easy win; go for something more ambitious the next time around.
“Can we reschedule Valentine’s Day for next weekend? I’d love a card and some flowers, and a romantic date night. I’ll help with the planning.”
If we must ask for what we need—which clearly we do, since the people we live with tend to have very poor mind reading skills—it behooves us to ask in a way that will get results. Good luck, and report back with what works for you!
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.