Recognizing How People Have Unexpressed Expectations

September 1, 2016 Relationships

Expectations. Like it or not, we all have them.

Layer #1 – obvious/universal truths of the world that we all (generally speaking) share. The majority of this don’t need to be continually expressed, because they’re so widely accepted as such. My mom (unless estranged) should say something to me on my birthday. Whoever walks into the air-conditioned house last closes the door. If you hold the door for someone (especially if you’re standing and waiting for them), they should say thank you. 

It’s the next layers of expectations where communication can get fuddled and people can have a range of experiences.


Layer #2 – known unexpressed expectations. This layer contains things that we expect of other people – and we are aware that we have expectations (or they of us) but they are just assumed and therefore unspoken.

People frequently land in this area – we essentially learn truths about the world from our experiences growing up, and as we build new relationships, we tend to judge them according to our past values, and hold the people in them accountable for things based on what we’ve learned to be true.

We humans like to be judgmental. And this isn’t about only the negative form of judgment, but judging in the sense of determining and placing value on things. Better than, worse than, good enough, etc.

The setup, and an example.

Setup: If you are (judgment), than you’ll (assumption).

Example: If you’re a close enough friend, then you’ll support me on a deeper emotional level and make extra effort to offer solace when a relative passes away.

The tricky thing here is that because these initial judgments are unexpressed, vague values (what are the defining factors that determine whether or not someone is a “close enough” or “true” friend?) that differ from person to person, lines can blur and things can be misread, leading to two people mistaking the level of a relationship and/or mistaking it’s rules and expectations. I might talk to a woman a few times a week at the gym, and she might take that to mean we’re really close friends. But for me, a certain level of depth/experience/trust has to be crossed to allow someone into my close friend space. If she doesn’t have those same qualifiers, I might make it into her close friend space much more quickly than she would mine. See how this can get messy?

The second half of this belongs to the assumptions that we make – about who “should” do or be what in the world. These are again often based on things we learned from friends and family growing up. We all have rules about what’s polite and how people are supposed to move through our existence. We most often make assumptions because we’re coming from a place of how we would do/be something; how we would handle a situation. We’ve held them to standards that we would’ve held ourselves to. And when that standard is also unexpressed, i.e. no verbal communication to let them know that was a standard we were holding them to, if we have an experience in which other people fall short of that, we’re then disappointed, angry, sad, etc.

Layer #3 – unknown unexpressed expectations. This layer contains things that we expect of other people, but we might not even know that we have been holding a person to an expectation. We’ve likely held this expectation for so long that we don’t even know it exists. These also can come from years of things we’ve witnessed from growing up.

An easy example of this comes from our parents. Because we were ingrained that things were done a certain way (say your mom was a stay-at-home mom while your dad worked long hours) you don’t necessarily realize as a child that it’s not like that for all families. That was your evidence of how a family should look, and so you may not even realize that you’re carrying that into your adulthood. You may not even realize that you naturally expect yourself to be able to stay home once you have children, while your husband works full-time. When something other than your expectation is true (say your husband doesn’t make enough money for you to stay home full-time, or maybe he also doesn’t see any reason for you to not keep working and get a babysitter) that expectation is now not being met, AND there’s a disconnect because you both have different assumptions around what it looks like to be a parent, which you likely didn’t even know was a conversation you might want to have with each other. You may end up in argument and don’t even realize it’s not necessarily either of your faults, you just learned that what the picture looks like is different than what he learned. And you’re both trying to do what you learned, thinking it’s the “right” or best way.


Having unexpressed expectations can cause a lot of pain, disappointment, and anger. Relationships frequent are severed over large scale versions of this. The key word though, is “unexpressed”.

There’s really just two parts to make life a lot more clear here: 1) finding where you (or they) are holding and expectation and 2) having a conversation about it.

Once you bring it to light, then you have options. If it’s an expectation you have, you can consider whether or not holding the other person to it is worth whatever the outcome is. If it’s one they have, you can consider whether it’s one you’re willing to meet them halfway or not on.

Either way, until it’s voiced, it can cause a mess of pain and confusion on all parts.

Is there an argument, situation, or misunderstanding that’s happened to you that you might consider attributing to the fact that one or more person involved had an unexpressed expectation that wasn’t being met?