How to Lower Your Expectations

When my husband sold his business and became a stay-at-home dad, a friend cautioned me, “You need to give him a job description. He needs to know what you expect.”

She knew that we’d tried this him-staying-home thing twice before. The first time he’d quit a job he’d hated and I suggested he work for me, instead. That didn’t go so well. The second time he lost a job he loved and I, again, suggested he work for me. Again, it didn’t go so well.

So my friend probably had a point. Still, the idea of a job description for “dad” “husband” and “person who manages the house” seemed cold, clinical, and authoritarian to me. Our communication skills have improved so much over the years. We could chat about what we both expected over time, couldn’t we?

I thought back to that decision about a week ago, on the day that Mark left me with a completely bare refrigerator and nearly empty kitchen cabinets. The house was a mess, and the laundry needed to be done, too. Oh, and the dog was whining for a walk that she never got.

Where was the man? I’d like to say that my first thought was Home Depot, where he was getting materials for a home improvement project, but I knew better. He was probably either riding his bicycle, fixing his bicycle, talking to a friend about bicycles, or watching a TV program about bicycles.

I was swamped with work, and I didn’t have time to drive somewhere for food. At the same time, my hunger was distracting. I tried to make due with the few foods we still had on hand. There was peanut butter on apple for breakfast, peanut butter on bread for a snack, and peanut butter on bread again for lunch. By the end of lunch, I was out of bread. And apples. And pretty much everything except for a jar of peanut butter.

I figured, by dinner, I’d be looking at eating a jar of peanut butter by the spoonful, and I was NOT. HAPPY. ABOUT. THAT.

(Yes, I’m aware that this is a first world problem. There are places in this world where families of four eat a jar of peanut butter for a whole week and consider it a rare treat and not a problem at all.)

So I called the husband and asked him when he might be thinking about going to the grocery store. He got all flustered with me and gave me the “oh” “ah” “um” “well” business. I later learned that he was with a friend all  morning setting up a bike course. (See?)

By the time he came home, I was so hungry I thought I might pass out. I’d had the least productive work day ever (with the exception of the work day I wrote about here), and that was truly a shame because I had a ton of work to do.

Somehow, amazingly, my mood was pretty chipper. Meditation is magical that way.

So I walked over to the husband, put a hand on his back, made kind, but firm eye contact and said calmly, “I’m okay with you riding your bike and doing bike things, but only after you get your home duties done. If you had a full time job, you wouldn’t be able to set up a cross course instead of meeting a work deadline. Rank your home chores on the same level.”

He said he understood and he’s been meeting expectation ever since.

But, of course, ever since has only been about 10 days.

So what did this teach me? And what can it teach you? You might think that this taught me an important lesson about stating my expectations firmly and out loud. True, there’s that. But mostly it taught me this: expectations are a seed of suffering. That’s because, invariably, at some point, we or someone else will fail to meet them.

Case in point, when I began my work day on a different day last week, I had some expectations for myself: 1) Write a post about the stages of marriage for 2) answer editing questions for a huge work project 3) promote a meditation course that I’ve organized in Bethlehem 4) write a post here at PHEA 5) go to the bank 6) write a newsletter for my volunteer job as Education Coordinator at a meditation center.

Actually there were more than 10 things on the to-do list. I’m not going to bore you by listing them all. The point is this: around 2 pm I realized that I was going to have a below average day. There I was, checking Facebook and Twitter, inventing excuses to walk into the kitchen, and generally getting nothing of any significance done. It was clear to me that my brain was too tired to tackle the newsletter. I also decided that it was raining too hard for me to go to the bank. As for the rest of the to-do list? I could either drink a pot of coffee or I could just lower my expectations.

I went with the latter.

Below average days happen. They happen to us, and they happen to others, too. Sometimes we think we can achieve more than our bodies or brains allow. Other times we goof off. We get sick. We get lazy. We get uninspired. We get spring fever. We fall victim to time sucks. We miscalculate how long something will take.

And on and on and on.

Maybe you can tell me about a below expectation day you might be having yourself. I’m guessing that most of us fail to meet our own expectations over and over again, more often than we can count. Usually we just forgive ourselves and move on, saying something like, “Well, you can’t wake up and send a man to the moon every day of the week, you know?” or “Well, you can’t find a cure for ebola every day” or “You can’t pen a best selling book every day of the week” and so on.

Sometimes it’s an accomplishment just to get out of bed and brew a cup of tea.

But when our significant others fail to meet expectations, suddenly it’s very different, isn’t it? Instead of thinking, “Well, no one can wake up and send a man to the moon every day,” we think things like “Why is he like that?” and “What’s wrong with him?” That leads us to “How could I marry someone like that?” and “I can’t put up with this anymore.” We assume they did or didn’t do something to spite us or because they don’t care about us or because they don’t prioritize us.

And while many of those things might be true, in reality what’s mostly going on is this: they’re busy being human, just like us.

So talk about it. State your expectations, but don’t get attached to them. Laugh when they aren’t met, solve problems, and embrace your marriage for the magical journey that it is.

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If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy reading about the happiest couple on Facebook.

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16 comments… add one

  • tina October 17, 2013, 11:44 am

    Omg! You crack me up! This was a perfect artical this morning. Apparentlyt I have way diff expectatiens of everyone! Been battling bit of depression lately so the making coffee hit home. I think its seasonal but others think I’m maybe bipilar! (What do they know!) Li LOL. Regardless…you made me laugh and now things don’t feel quite so stressful! Ty!

  • Sue B October 17, 2013, 12:04 pm

    Great article – and so timely after our discussion last week! LOL It is so easy to get distracted on FB, Twitter, Pinterest, etc and before I know it an hour has gone by. It is too easy to let those negative thoughts get into your head and very true that we are all just busy being human. Thanks for another great post – I also loved your article about the Happiest Couple on FB – some really great points!

  • David Bibby October 17, 2013, 12:15 pm


    Thank you for bringing this up. It reminds me that between many husbands and wives there is a “hidden” fear that exists in both of their minds. The husband often thinks that his wife “doesn’t like him” and the wife often thinks that her husband “doesn’t care” about her… and their failure to meet each others expectations is used as “proof” that their feelings and fears are true.

    I’ll say that I used to live with this fear for a long time… my wife would often joke with me… but I’d take it the wrong way because my underlying assumption at the time was “She doesn’t think I’m good enough”. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

    Once I understood that… that she really DID care for me and only wanted the best for me. I was able to appreciate ALL her attempts to connect with me.. including her jokes.

    We both fail to meet each others expectations still sometimes… but we both give each other grace when it happens.

  • Catie Y October 17, 2013, 12:19 pm

    Great article – I think this will hit home with a lot of us. Everyone has expectations of husbands as well as any other person they have relationships with in their lives. Even when we don’t know we do. I justify mine by considering it “common sense”. To me it’s common sense for my husband to not buy anything but what is on the list after I’ve told him we only have so much money to work with. To him he’s doing something nice for me by picking up a treat or ten along with the things on the list. I have so many of these types of things with him that sometimes make me crazy. I feel like I repeat myself over and over and he still does the same things. I’ve tried to talk calmly to him about things as they come up yet it all still continues. I must admit some things have gotten better over the last 10 years but I still struggle with this every day. I just try hard to remember “progress not perfection”. But boy it’s hard to do. Even when it comes to expectations I have of myself. So I say we all take 5 or 10, have a cup of coffee or whatever treat you have handy, daydream out the window a bit and give ourselves a break!

  • One Frugal Girl October 17, 2013, 2:22 pm

    This sentence really hit home for me: “We assume they did or didn’t do something to spite us or because they don’t care about us or because they don’t prioritize us.” My husband thinks this a lot about me. I currently stay home with my son while my husband goes off to work everyday and manages his own small company. I think he has expectations in mind for what he expects me to do or accomplish but never really states them. Then I find him tired and exhausted and frustrated that I haven’t done more. The funny thing is I’m happy to do more, but without a list I just can’t read his mind. I think it’s extra difficult when one spouse works and one stays home. I completely understand that and try to remind myself to check in with him more often so we can remain on the same page. I want him to feel loved and appreciated for all that he does for us.

  • Daina October 17, 2013, 2:37 pm

    I struggle with this EVERY DAY. It’s probably one of the biggest things I battle in my mind. According to my expectations, my husband is extremely lazy. There are many times when I truly feel he does nothing to help out. We both work full-time and we have a pre-school age daughter, so I really expect him to step up and help out. Over the past few years my husband has struggled with his mental health and there was a point that for about a year, he could barely get out of bed. I stepped up and did everything, I was pretty much a single mom, taking care of two, and doing it all on my own. He’s much better than he was, but now I feel like his expectation is that I should just handle everything and my expectation is that it should at least be a 70/30 or 60/40 split. Yeah, that doesn’t happen. Just last week, I needed him to do something for me, and I practically had to get on my knees and beg him to do it. And like Alisa said, more often that not, I feel like when I ask him to help and he doesn’t, that it’s out of spite. Then, I start to resent him. I have a lot of resentment. I don’t know how much of this situation is caused by me – Are my expectations are too high? I feel like they are not. I feel like I shouldn’t have to lower my expectations, like I deserve more. Isn’t that what our parents tell us?

    • Alisa Bowman October 18, 2013, 10:06 am

      Daina — expectations are tricky because there’s “reality” and there’s “what we want.” Those two don’t always match up. I can’t say whether your expectations are too high or not. I’m not there. But I can say that it sounds like you are in a very hard situation, and your suffering is understandable. I hope your husband’s mental health continues to improve so that you can get to a more equitable distribution of labor.

  • Jodi October 17, 2013, 3:33 pm

    It seems to me that having gone through this twice before, with the same results, to not discuss expectations before doing it again is risky at best. How can it be better for a marriage to walk right into a known mine field than to have a preliminary discussion about expectations? We are encouraged to have exactly these types of discussions before entering into a marriage, shouldn’t that advice also apply before making a life change during a marriage? Not to mention, negotiation is always more amicable ahead of time than after a pattern has been established.

    • Alisa Bowman October 18, 2013, 10:03 am

      Jodi, yes, you are right, it would have been a swell idea to talk about our expectations ahead of time. I don’t know why I resisted it then and still do now. Part of it probably stems from not knowing what I expect until… it doesn’t happen. Another part comes form not wanting to be my husband’s boss. And perhaps part comes from liking some of my life to be spontaneous and magical. This situation didn’t make me all that angry. It was managed well, and we both learned from it. My only point here is that, even after stating expectations, people can fail to meet them.

  • Cris October 17, 2013, 4:20 pm

    Thank you Alisa for your words. It is wise to lower our expectations, and even more, habe almost none. This way life would be full of nice surprises!!

  • Irene Cooper October 18, 2013, 6:11 am

    Your article really has a good point. I have to be honest that I would usually be more on the “do not expect anything if you do not want to feel bad”. But I do not want to be a hypocrite and deny the fact that there are some things that we do expect from our partner when things should be done. In all falls down to “communication”. Communication is the best solution and yes communicating your expectations and being able to talk about it together is one very good method in having a better and happier relationship.

  • Gay October 18, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Alisa, as usual your message is spot on. But I think you missed one really important point. While we need to lower expectations, we also need to protect ourselves against preventable behaviors that are not in our best interest. I’m having trouble saying this because I don’t want to sound all bossy and contradictory and controversial. But here’s the thing…the Buddhists have a term called “idiot compassion.” You probably know it.

    Idiot compassion is when we tolerate the intolerable. Would your husband have left the dog all day with almost nothing to eat? Would he have left your child in such a state?

    I absolutely get the whole no expectations thing. Expect nothing, at best you’ll be pleasantly surprised, at worst, nothing’s lost. But when I’m hungry and someone else has the responsibility for filling the shelves, I call them on it. Right away. I don’t have to be a hero, a saint or a martyr.

    If I’m on a job and I miss a deadline or screw up an important task, the ideal boss doesn’t wait a few days to see what’s up. She calls me on it asap.

    I hope your husband continues to perform better at his job. But I also hope that you’ll speak up sooner when your basic needs aren’t being met and he has the responsibility and the means to fulfill them. As in, “Husband! There’s no food in the house. I don’t have time to go out. This is something you agreed to take care of. Unless you’re lying in a ditch somewhere waiting for the ambulance, bring food. Now, please!”

    BTW: I agree with your friend who says he needs a job description. He’s not working for you, he’s working for the family, but you have had his job previously. Suggest you get really, really specific, as in, you must food shop every Wednesday. Vacuum weekly. Pick the kid up daily. Wash up all the dishes, sweep the floor and wipe down the counters every night before bed. Spend 15 minutes daily picking up the living room. Clarity is our friend.

    Suggestions offered, my friend, with love. xox

    • One Frugal Girl October 19, 2013, 2:49 pm

      I love the idea of providing a specific, concrete list. It really would help line up expectations with results and I don’t think it would feel like you are bossing your husband around at all. In fact, I plan to ask my husband for a list this week and might provide him with a list of my own. Great suggestion!

  • Aimee October 19, 2013, 7:10 pm

    I have the stay-at-home role in our family. I can tell you that I would surely not appreciate a job description or a chore list from my husband. What I would appreciate, however, is a discussion before our week starts about our schedules and what, very specifically, needs to be done by each of us throughout the week. Bonus points for my husband if he offers to help out with an item on my (self-made) to-do list.

  • Amanda October 20, 2013, 3:08 pm

    I am working from home on my online business, so I am kind of a stay at home dad also. It is great!

    Amanda and Mark

  • Armele November 4, 2013, 4:51 am

    Thanks for this post Alisa, I love the way you gave Mark the window of opportunity to fill the fridge, and the peanut butter and apple ‘diet’ was quite healthy for a day ;-D and the point you make about priorities rather than specific tasks in REALLY important!

    I feel it’s tempting to give our significant others a long list of chores and resentment can build because they don’t do it exactly how we would do it .. but as you’ve discussed before (and we can see from the comments above) this sets your S.O. up for certain failure and you for a build up of resentment.

    Surely better to ask for time to discuss family and personal priorities regularly as a team and then allow each other to do it your own way, anything else is infantilising and can lead to the person not coming up to the assumed expectations feeling demoralised.


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