Friday, August 6, 2010

"High Expectations"

I’ve been hearing a lot about high expectations recently. Partially, it’s because I work in an office full of middle-aged women who find it funny that I expect a guy to cook and clean, and that I have a strict rule about not dating anyone who doesn’t. When they throw around phrases like “high expectations”, I get a little jolt of happy because it means my expectations are higher than theirs, and that I hopefully won’t have their marriages. Because their marriages, while working quite well for them, would make me miserable. Because I have high expectations.

I don’t really know if this is truly a feminist issue, the issue of expectations and when they become too high. It doesn’t really matter, though, because it is an issue.

Truthfully, I think the idea of having too high expectations to be pretty laughable. Not saying that there is no one in the world with ridiculously high expectations. Of course there are. And maybe they should be told to dial it back and not expect a guy with an actual white horse to come riding up to take them away. But for the average person, I think “too high expectations” may just translate to “different expectations”. As in, “those are expectations I cannot or will not meet, and therefore they are too high”. But that’s the point of expectations. To figure out who fits with who. Sometimes, the person you’re interested in won’t fit yours, or you won’t fit theirs.

I’m a big believer in coming to a potential relationship with an idea about negotiables and non-negotiables. I’m a big believer in coming to a potential relationship with expectations of behavior, and nonbehavior. I’m also a big believer in this potentially not being the first conversation you have with a person, but an evolving topic that has to be built into a relationship. And I mean any relationship. Important friendships as well as romantic endeavors. You have to know where you stand, and what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re not willing to put up with; and the other person needs to know those details as well. Otherwise, this stuff doesn’t work. And if you go into a relationship and say, “I expect X, Y, & Z”, and your potential person says, “I can do X and Y, but I can’t promise Z; oh and by the way, I need A, B, & C from you”, then you have a working knowledge of what’s going on. And later on, if the potential person becomes an important person who does do X and Y and also J through N but just can’t manage to get down Z, you can reassess how much you’re willing to fight for Z. How much of a nonnegiotable Z actually is.

I’m a big believer in this for a personal reason. I have been dating the same guy off and on (and off and on… and off and on, and… you get the picture) for the better part of 7 years. And in the beginning, I had little in the way of relationship expectations. Sure, I expected someone I could talk to, who would respect my passions (not that he had to be passionate about the same things, but he had to at least not belittle them). But I didn’t have the big picture ‘How I Expect To Be Treated’ stuff down at that time. And I had my ass handed to me in the form of major heartbreak. And over the past 7 years, I’ve gotten pretty down with the whole, “This isn’t working for me, and we need to change something” deal. It isn’t perfect. He isn’t perfect. I’m certainly not perfect. Our relationship has been at best dysfunctional in the past, and it takes a lot of work to lean toward functionality even now.

But what I have learned from the yo-yo effect of my relationship is that high expectations are key to happiness. Having high expectations, and having the self-respect to expect those expectations to be met, is the key to a healthy relationship. Having the self-respect and self-awareness to understand what will make you walk away.

The only time expectations can be too high is if you’re (a) single, (b) looking, and (c) miserable without a significant other. If you meet those three criteria, then maybe you should think about shelving that whole “He has to have voluntarily read Foucault and understood his theories” thing. If what you’re looking for is a boyfriend, and if you’re not happy without one, maybe you can overlook a detail like not knowing a lot about French post-modernist thinkers. However, if only (a) and (b) apply, if you’re happy – or at least content – on your own, you can hold out for a fellow post-modernist for longer. High expectations only become “too high” when you get tired of waiting.

Too often, I think, we have low expectations when it comes to relationships. Too often, having someone say, “Oh, you’ll never find someone who does X, or will commit to Y, or thinks Z” forces people to settle for someone who doesn’t fit their basic criteria of nonnegotiables. Because the worst thing is to be alone. Because the most important thing in the world is apparently to find someone, so you don’t end up dying alone. I can dig that. When I was little, we had a downstairs neighbor who frequently said, “You’ve gotta live with somebody”. It was a very Steven Stills, “Love The One You’re With” philosophy.

I just don’t think that’s automatically true. It may be simply dependent on the fact that I’m a loner. It may be that my family has an odd history of having singletons who live alone and enjoy it. It may be that I would much rather be alone than be in the marriages my coworkers have, and that I’d rather be alone than constantly feel as if my needs didn’t mean much to my friends.

If the most important thing is getting some friends or a girlfriend/boyfriend, high expectations and some semblance of standards are going to get in the way of that. If the most important thing is getting the optimal friends and/or boyfriend/girlfriend for you, then high expectations are the way to go. Because high expectations are what help create lasting, fulfilling relationships. It’s how we find people who go along with our idiosyncrasies, and whose idiosyncrasies we’ll alternately love and tolerate. It’s how we create a community. It’s how we create a place where we can be ourselves with abandon, and how we celebrate others’ true selves as well. It’s how we find people we can discuss crazy details of our shared favorite things. It’s how we get treated as people who matter, whose concerns and opinions and needs matter. That’s what high expectations are: they are the expectation that the other person is going to care enough to care about what makes us us, and to sometimes bend for us – just as we would bend for them. And if you find someone who shares your love of Foucault who is also interested in social justice and is willing to move with you through this thing we call life, all the better.