by Michelle April
It is important to distinguish rules, standards and expectations from one another, particularly as it concerns relationships. The early days of what we call love is a barroom, full of dopamine that creates romance, sexiness, game playing, tensions, laughs and zesty dynamics. Who do you want to be arm and arm with when last call comes? Last call is when the dopamine lights are dimmed and we sober up and get onto the business of being in relationship over the long term. Trust me when I say there are certain characters you might want to avoid if they have not already been kicked out of the bar.
Let's look at the three guys in question. There are rules in relationships that we make on purpose to provide structure and boundaries, there are standards we hold that determine the look and quality of a relationship and there are expectations that shoot the fiery relationship with a high-pressured, cold-water hose. It is important to distinguish one guy from another.
Rules in a relationship provide structure. They are intentional. Rules are implicit or explicit. You agree on them together – that is, if you are being wise together. Examples include, ‘we remain true to each other’, or ‘we can have sex with other people so long as…’. If we are really good at this relationship thing, a rule that is often implicit is that ‘we speak from our own position, and not from the other person’s point of view’. For example, we do not say, “Jack always feels that when I am out on the town, I’m up to no good”. First, there is nothing on earth that happens always. Second, does Jack feel that way? Why don’t we ask him?
“Jack do you feel that way?”
Often, rules arise nearer the beginning of the commitment. They sound something like this: “So, are we an item?” which, interpreted might mean, “are we exclusive?”
Standards on the other hand relate to a value you place on something or someone. In terms of choosing our significant ‘other’, often a standard comes from our history, and future relationship prospects are measured against a personal standard. While a standard implies a ‘norm’, it is different for each person. Cultural norms influence an individual’s norm, but that is another topic.
A heterosexual woman might use her nearly perfect father as an impossible standard from which to measure the quality of her future male partner – or not. Maybe Magnum P.I. is the standard from which she measures her guy’s credibility. Still a tough one to live up to, particularly if the poor guy is a lousy investigator. We choose people of equal immaturity – we just might not be aware of our own level of immaturity making us more apt to point the finger at our partner. There are chemical things at play. Wounds we have come to the table to heal. Our choice of love partner is more purposeful than we might be consciously aware of.
Standards are like this: I want someone who is active, a non-smoker, kind and respectful. He must like living in the country. Funny. Yes, he must be funny. I could not live a humourless life. A stellar investigator would be an excellent asset, but I am willing to let that go. This process of considering standards is the act of taking ownership of wants and needs. It empowers the standard setter – so long as we aren’t setting the bar outrageously high. Is it reasonable to want a hybrid of Clark Kent and Magnum PI? If we have unreasonable standards, what is that about? Are we doing our subconscious-best to avoid a relationship? Or is it an attempt to create a good-looking photo album for Facebook? Reasonable standards match us with people who have similar values. These contrasts would not likely work: I like the country, Magnum likes the city. I don’t want babies, Magnum wants babies. I’m gay, Magnum is straight. You get the picture. The semblance of a reasonable standard-set is important when determining a partner. We can’t do anything about chemicals. You might find yourself falling for someone with whom you have zero in common. Get ready for some interesting times ahead.
Now onto the relationship killer – Expectations. Expectations serve one great, not to be minimized, significant, and important purpose: to teach us about how useless expectations are. In essence, expectations are shifting the onus onto others to fulfill our needs and to determine our worth. Expectations tell our partner how to behave and what to value. I can hear half of the readership (the other person) saying, wait a minute, can I not expect something like basic respect!!? Here is my question to you: If it looks like someone is about to heave on you, would you just stand there? Is disrespect any different?
I am not here to argue that it is easy to manage expectations, I am here to talk about making our best effort to manage them. The first step is to identify them when they arise.
All we can do in relationships is ask for what we want and need. And as you might have guessed, this is the next step. If your needs are not being met in gross proportion, so that it crosses the line in terms of emotional deficiency, then get out of the way. Leave if it goes on too long. But first, before you leave, ask yourself: What in me needs ‘that thing I call love’ that I feel I am not getting? What is causing my void? If you are avoidant, ask yourself what prevents me from engaging or being intimate? This is the important process of determining what belongs to me and what belongs to my partner.
When we 'measure up' our prospective partner at the outset, we are choosing someone to share a quality life with, and we are choosing someone we think we will feel safe with. If safety is not present, then what wound are we there to heal? We must look inward for this answer. This question is the key to refining the quality of our close relationships. Closing time is embraced when we figure this out. After this good work, we can say, "ahhh, can't wait to leave this bar and go home."
Expectations lock individual freedom up in a cage, throwing away the key until the once plump and healthy beast shrivels up and dies. Is that the relationship you want? Is forced voluntarism even possible? If you love something set it free…blah blah blah. To have expectations is to say to a person, “I don’t accept you the way that you are – can you please change your face (your mannerisms, your behaviour, your values, your wounds)?” Expectations disempower the expectant and make the expectee uncomfortable because of the message they are receiving that they are not good enough as they are. This is not love, it is the sparring of egos.
I repeat, all we have power over is asking for what it is that we want or need. If your significant other is not able to meet your needs, then move out of the way. They will either find out how to better do that or they will bring this same baggage to the next relationship. If you ask wasabi to become mustard and then get mad at it for remaining wasabi you become a victim, not of your partner, but of your own expectations.
If Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski walks into the bar, sit with him. At least watch his video where he talks about what it means to love. Notice I have not really talked about love above. I have been talking about relationship. Okay, now the Rabbi:
Where he says “…if I give something to you, I’ve invested myself in you” and then, “now that part of me has become in you, there’s a part of me in you that I love” is particularly relevant to our understanding of love.
Real love is able to flow freely to those who don’t suffocate it. Suffocation of love looks like this: “I need you to express love in this way, to fill my void. Kiss me this way, say these words and hug me hourly. If you do not show me love the way I need it, then you must not love me.” (Expectations, expectations, expectations). Let’s go back to Rules: don’t tell poor Magnum how he feels about you.
When we love, we just love. Loving with conditions is not love – it is manipulating another to our own ends. It is asking another to give us something that we have not yet fulfilled in ourselves. Conditions are created by the wounded ego. Real love is saying, “I accept you exactly as you are, unconditionally and without expectations. I may not be able to live with you, but that does not diminish love.” Love is separate from relationship. Love is just love.
If loving another unconditionally means having to love the self more first, what does that take? Start there. Look at your own void that you may be asking another to fill. Look at your own resistance to intimacy. These are your wounds. Own them.
When rules, standards and expectations walk into the bar, make sure to identify them properly. To give you a hand, rules is wearing a grey pinstripe suit and he’s holding a clipboard. He’s not exciting but he is necessary. You will feel safe with him. Standards is holding a measuring tape. His measuring tape is not a threat, it is a tool. You will feel at home with Standards. Expectations is an incoherent drunkard who is staggering toward his next victim as the bouncers approach. You will feel powerless and inadequate with him. Don’t mix these three guys up. Go easy on each other beautiful, resilient, frail, wounded people.