We hear a lot that the secret for happiness in relationships is to not have any expectations.

From Paulo Coelho who tells us in The Alchemist: “When someone sees the same people every day, as had happened with him at the seminary, they wind up becoming a part of that person’s life. And then they want the person to change. If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” – to Rachel Cohn in one of her novel: “I mean, like most guys, you carry around this girl in your head, who is exactly who you want her to be. The person you think you will love the most. And every girl you are with gets measured against this girl in your head.”

It seems that it is a common belief that unrealistic expectations in relationships are the source of conflicts and suffering. There is a lot of advice out there who tell us to stop having expectations on how others should behave like Tonya Hurley “If you expect nothing, you can never be disappointed.”

But where do you draw the line?

I have a client who is in a tricky situation. She is in love with a man who also loves her but he is unable to commit to her for various reasons. She keeps hanging around because she hopes that will change. When we discuss her pain at the situation she tells me that perhaps the problem comes from her expectations being too high and that she should learn to accept him as he is and be grateful for what he already gives her in terms of time and affection.

Yet, she is unhappy and suffers a lot because of that situation. What advice would you give her? Most of her friends told her to leave the guy, and when I asked her why she didn’t given he didn’t meet her needs, she replied with a simple question: “what’s the difference between needs and expectations anyway?”

I think it is actually crucial to know the difference. Expectations indeed can create a lot of suffering. For most people, their perfectionism, lack of self esteem and feeling of not being good enough come from a sense of not having met their parental figures expectations. A lot of relationships and friendships also know the struggle of conflicts coming from unvoiced demands about the others. How many of us regularly get into arguments because someone didn’t meet our expectations?

So yes, it is important indeed to accept people and situations as they are in order to have healthy relationships and significantly reduce our suffering and increase our happiness. But where do you draw the line? If we are indeed to accept others as they are, how do we then decide what’s healthy and good for us and what needs strong boundaries?

And this is when the difference between needs and expectations comes in. I believe our needs are what keep us sane, healthy and preserve our integrity. Whereas expectations come from an idealised version of a person or a situation embodied usually by the word “should”. Our partner should behave in a certain way ; life should be easier ; The weather should be nicer this time of the year.

Those expectations are based on an ideal version of life and other people – most of the time unrealistic anyway – but if this idealisation doesn’t happen, we don’t get hurt or harmed. We get disappointed, for sure, and even angry if we are very attached to this perfect version our mind has created ; but it doesn’t damage us.

On another hand, if our needs are not met, our emotional and physical well-being gets compromised. So for example, when we want to be respected by our partner, is that a need or an expectation? I believe it’s a need, as a lack of respect would impair our sense of integrity and self-worth. But if we want our partner to tidy the house the-way-we-would-do-it-ourselves and they don’t, does that damage our sense of self? Probably not.

This is how I ended up defining the difference between needs and expectations. When I asked this question to Kim Eng, Eckhart Tolle’s wife,  she said: “It’s simple: it doesn’t matter what it is, does it make you happy?” And I pondered over this for months as something didn’t quite fit the bill.

I think we can indeed create a lot of unhappiness if we are too attached to our expectations. So if someone doesn’t meet my expectations and I really want them to, then yes, I could say it makes me unhappy. But it wouldn’t compromise my emotional or physical health.

A good way to start differentiating them is to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For example, if we look at the bottom of the pyramid, physiological needs, it is quite easy to understand that if you are lacking food or water, your physical health will be harmed. However if you do have food but you expect a certain type of food, it might disappoint you if you don’t get it but not endanger your health – in most cases, that is!

So when you find yourself in a situation that makes you unhappy, it might be worth exploring where your frustration or pain comes from: is it due to your expectations – how things should be in an ideal world? – or because your fundamental needs are not met?

Feel free to share your experience and thoughts on this fascinating topic in the comment box below!

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