When it comes to relationships, telling someone to lower their expectations of you is typically a good way to start a fight. Whether it’s a partner who’s asking for more of your time than you’re willing to give or a boss whose demands are bleeding into your nights and weekends, setting expectations is often a necessary conversation to have — but one that’s more difficult when you’re just hoping to bring them down a bit.
Underneath this dilemma lies two relatively universal truths about mental health: People who have flexible expectations about life tend to lead happier lives, as do people who accept their lack of control over other people’s actions. But again, can you manage — and particularly, lower — what other people expect from you without seeming like a total asshole?
The answer is yes. But it requires a very deft touch.
Define the Expectations
Perhaps you’re considering lowering the amount of quality time a romantic partner prefers or the responsibilities around the house your roommate expects of you. Whatever the situation, for a proper negotiation to take place, you have to agree on what the current expectations are. Otherwise, such conversations can quickly go off the rails.
For instance, in a new romantic relationship, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the idea of staying over at another person’s place all the time. But the longer you do this without talking about it, the more it creates a perceived expectation, which may or may not be true. But if you were “to ask if these expectations are true, or if they’re just your perception,” psychotherapist Lena Suarez-Angelino points out, it may turn out that your partner’s needs weren’t what you built them up to be and the negotiation process will be easier than you thought.
As obvious as it may seem, by simply asking more questions about the parameters of the relationship and the other person’s needs, you’re less likely to accuse someone of having higher expectations than they actually do. This will help you side-step unnecessary conflict about the standards you’re (allegedly) being held to.
Identify What’s Keeping You From Meeting Expectations
Once you’ve defined the expectations that really are placed on you, it’s time to take stock of what’s keeping you from meeting them. Because sometimes, adjustments can be made in order to make these expectations more attainable. For instance, if part of the reason why you can’t make it to your buddy’s destination wedding is the cost, you might be able to come up with some ideas for how to budget better and save up for the occasion.
The more willing you are to try things in order to reach another person’s expectations, the more likely they are to listen when you tell them those expectations might be impractical. So, if cutting back on drinking and takeout for a few months still doesn’t allow you to save up enough for a weekend getaway, the effort you put in to try to get there gives you more credibility when starting a conversation about not going.
Stop Meeting Their Expectations
Ah, the most terrifying part: communicating what you’re not willing to do. One of the worst ways to handle this is by abruptly ceasing to meet expectations without an explanation. “This can run the risk of losing a job, damaging a friendship or other more serious consequences,” Suarez-Angelino warns.
The better way to go about this is by “setting boundaries,” which is basically a clinical way of saying that you need to make sure your expectations of other people are also clearly communicated. An example psychotherapist Tricia Johnson offers is the significant other who will always “emotionally dump” about their day but is never satisfied by the response. While it’s true that you can’t control how your partner copes with their emotions, you can communicate that you’re not able to always hear their complaints.
“We can’t force people to play by our rules, but we can tell them our rules and stand up for ourselves when boundaries are crossed or violated,” Johnson explains. “Boundaries help us create healthy relationships and, most importantly, clarify our own needs.”
Throw Them a ‘Positive No’
When you’re finally ready to tell a person you cannot meet their expectations as they’ve been set, it’s best to utilize a less therapeutic and more aggressive approach from lawyers and other experts in conflict resolution. Attorney and mediator Nance Schick recommends using a “positive no” — a tactic developed by anthropologist William Ury, who co-founded the Harvard Program on Negotiation.
Here’s how the three-step strategy works: You “say yes to the relationship, no to requests they can’t fulfill and yes to the relationship again,” Schick tells me. So let’s say your boss wants you to meet a deadline in two hours for an assignment that takes four hours to complete. Schick suggests you say something like, “I really want to do a great job, but it takes four hours to complete that project. I know you need to meet all the deadlines, but it’s not possible for me to do it alone. What can we do together to resolve this?”
As much as the point of the “positive no” is to communicate what you’re not going to do, emphasizing the importance of the relationship will increase the odds of it staying intact.
Determine Your Own Expectations
Ultimately, there are always going to be things in relationships that others won’t budge on. But most people can’t just walk away from a job, spouse or family member, even when the bar is set above and beyond what’s healthy or attainable. These are the expectations that we may not be able to lower, but we still have to be able to communicate about in order to cope with them.
So, what are you willing to live with? Where are you willing to give? And are you ready to talk about it? In the end, you may be able to get the people in your life to expect less of you, but it’s going to take some work on your part to get there.