Guest contribution from Megan Pinfield, Senior Advisor, Workplace Mental Health
I’ve been a clinical counsellor since 2004 and in that time, I’ve worked with many couples and individuals struggling with relationship issues. One common theme I have seen over and over again is conflict due to unmanaged or uncommunicated expectations.
Dr. John Gottman, a relationship researcher and author of several books on the subject states that 70% of all conflict in relationships is actually unsolvable  and that conflict will exist no matter what.
Why is conflict inevitable?
The answer to this question is that we all have certain expectations about relationships that many of us do not acknowledge to ourselves, let alone our unsuspecting partners . Our expectations come from how we were raised, the society in which we grew up, the types of books and TV shows we watched, how we were treated by the people in our social worlds and many other factors.
For example, from our family of origin we learned how to show and receive affection, how to negotiate for things we want, how to communicate our needs and feelings so others will listen, and what to expect from the people who love us.
Each of us has developed a unique set of expectations for relationships based on our life experiences. In addition to giving and receiving love, we all have expectations around the following:
- Relationship longevity (how long we expect relationships to last)
- Sexual fidelity (whether we expect our partners to be faithful or not)
- Sex (frequency, style, etc.)
- Romance (what it “should” look like)
- Children (whether we should have them, how many, what sexes, etc.)
- Work, careers and money (how ambitious our partner “should” be, how hard we should work, etc.)
- Communication (how much, what about, what’s taboo, etc.)
- Degree of emotional dependency (how much to rely on a partner for emotional support)
- Power and control (who has it, how much, when and in what situations)
- Housework (who does what and when)
- Friendships outside a relationship (how often do we see friends or opposite sex friends, etc.)
- Religious and spiritual beliefs (do partners have to share beliefs)
Sometimes in my counselling practice, I meet couples who openly discuss these topics before marriage. But more often than not, couples never even consider these ideas much less discuss them with each other. Every one of them has their unique set of expectations for each category – even if they are not aware of it.
Conflict happens when one person’s expectations are not met by the other party. For example, A and B are in a relationship and A has the expectation that B will show their love by buying A small gifts and setting up romantic getaways for the two of them. But B grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money, and B learned that showing love means doing chores for the other person without being asked. So B washes the cars and cleans the house and picks up the dry cleaning for A. Unfortunately, A doesn’t recognize B’s efforts as love and B feels unappreciated by A. So neither person is happy in the relationship.
If this goes on for five to 10 years, A and B can build up a lot of resentment and anger towards each other that lead to arguments and tears. The solution is for A and B to have an honest discussion about their individual expectations for the relationship (ideally A and B should talk about what each of them expects from the other in all the categories).
Sometimes it is helpful to have these discussions in the presence of a therapist, especially if there is a history of resentment and frustration in the relationship. A good therapist can help teach each individual how to communicate his/her needs and expectations in a respectful and non-threatening way so their partner can hear them.
Obviously, some expectations cannot and should not be met by your partner; a good therapist will help you and your partner learn to accept differences and make compromises.
If you are experiencing conflict in your relationships, take a moment to consider what your expectations are. Ask yourself, “what did I assume about this situation that is upsetting me?”
If you need more help, contact a counsellor in your area or UBC’s Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP) provider, Shepell.
 (Gottman, 2012, Why Marriages Succeed and Fail)
 (Markman, H., Stanley, S & Blumberg, S. 2001, Fighting For Your Marriage.)