Stocker: Unrealistic expectations of others inevitably lead to dissatisfaction


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

Unrealistic expectations of friends, family and romantic partners are a root cause of unhappiness here at Northwestern. Through conversations with friends and family over the years, I have been struck by how often people’s dissatisfaction and frustration with their relationships stem not from actual faults or wrongs but rather from the failure of others to live up to expectations — expectations that are too often kept silent and private. Friendships and other relationships turn turbulent and embittered because others’ personalities and actions conflict with the idealized personas we have created for them.

Freeing ourselves from the unhappiness caused by unrealistic expectations can be difficult, but it is doable. We have to acknowledge how, why and to what extent our expectations of friends, family and romantic partners can be unrealistic. Take, for example, expectations of friends’ availability and communicability. Through sitcoms, discussions of the “constant contact” culture of the 21st century and myriad social media platforms playing out public interpersonal interactions, Americans are taught that incessant interpersonal communication is normal and healthy. Facebook, iMessage and other messaging applications with read receipts and time stamps that signal when the receiver has read the sent message have bred their own form of anxiety, turning the convenience of electronic communication into a nightmare.

Technology has driven unrealistic expectations for constant communication. Fighting these unrealistic expectations requires acknowledging that such expectations are absurd. Different people have different styles of communication. I have friends whom I text daily, others whom I speak with on the phone once a month and others whom I only speak to in person. I am a fan of near-constant contact. I tend to reply swiftly to messages and happily engage in texting conversations if I’m not busy. At times, the slowness of others’ responses causes anxiety. “Is he angry with me? Has she forgotten I messaged her? What did I say wrong?” The thoughts swirl endlessly. But I know I am not alone. Many friends have expressed similar sentiments, and the existence of Reddit threads on “read receipt anxiety” further speaks to their prevalence.

So, what can we do? First, we need to separate unrealistic expectations from those that are rational and realistic. To continue with the availability and communicability example, consider what “read receipt anxiety” and desires for constant contact symbolize. Such feelings are expressions of social expectations, both realistic and unrealistic. We should realistically expect our friends to be supportive and care about our lives. In moments of personal tragedy or crisis, it is reasonable to expect our friends to pick up the phone. It is also reasonable to expect to have a meaningful conversation with a close friend on a somewhat regular basis. We need to balance those expectations of support, interest and availability with the realities of others’ lives. Our friends have course work, jobs, personal interests and other relationships. We are not the centers of our friends’ lives. The same goes for family and romantic partners. We can and should expect to be valued by those closest to us but must also acknowledge others’ limitations and autonomy.

Expectations for friends’ availability and communicability are but one example of how we hold unrealistic expectations of others. In countless conversations, I have heard how unrealistic expectations for everything lead to unhappiness, anger and disillusionment. Combatting unrealistic expectations can be difficult. We are all subject to the same societal forces that create warped images of healthy relationships and cannot control our initial emotional reactions to others’ behavior. We can, however, think critically and parse out reasonable expectations from irrational desires. We can also communicate with those close to us. Every healthy relationship is a two-way street. Effort is required on the part of both parties for mutual enjoyment and fulfillment. Honesty is key here. We must be honest with ourselves by recognizing when our expectations of others are unrealistic, and we must always be honest with those closest to us when expressing what we truly need.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.