Relationships, Expectations, and Rules: Failure States

I’m going to say something controversial about relationships. But before I can do that, I need to define two terms that often get slurred together.

In relationships, there are two tools you can use to determine how your partner should react to things: Expectations and Rules. There’s a fine distinction between the two, which is often confused.

Expectations are what you believe your partner will do in a given situation.  For example, based on past history, I think Gini and I will probably sex it up a couple of times a week.  We’ve never discussed this; it’s just something that, assuming Gini and I are both healthy and in a good mood, I expect will happen.

Rules are limitations that you set down explicitly to avoid hurting your partner.  For example, I have an agreement with my partners that I will not sleep with anyone without getting explicit permission first.

Every relationship has expectations.   Not every relationship has rules.

Now, expectations are nebulous in that sometimes the expectation is, “I don’t expect anything from you,” as in a FWB thing or a very open poly where both partners do as they please, and have no say in what the other wants.  (In which case, the expectation is, “You’ll leave if what I do bothers you enough.”)  And expectations are useful in diagnosing potential relationship problems – if, for no reason that I can name, Gini starts having sex with me only every couple of months, it’s probably not a bad idea for me to check in and ask what’s going on.

But most relationships contain an (often hidden) expectation of a certain level of honesty, and of good intention (you’re not going to hurt me in a bad way intentionally), and of some form of attraction (or else why are you dating, unless you’re asexual?). Those expectations are, in fact, generally the reasons you’re dating that person, even if it’s as simple as “I expect we’ll have some pretty damn amusing conversations.”

The problem is, it’s extremely easy to break an expectation, because it’s just some mental construct someone’s formed of you – in many cases, completely arbitrarily!  I tell people time and time again, “I write up my essays because I screw things up so often that I have to keep notes.  I am not a together person.  I am a teeming mass of insecurities.”  Yet because I write strongly, and consistently, people often think that I’m a confident, wise person.  Then they date me, expecting a confident, wise person.

…that doesn’t work out too well.

But that’s usually the reason relationships collapse; you realize that the model you have constructed of this person inside your mind does not actually exist, and the person who’s really there is not anyone that you actually want to live with.

Managing expectations is difficult.  It’s complex math, trying to synchronize a model with a real person who doesn’t even fully understand themselves. You’re creating a simulation of the person inside your head, and running that simulated person’s reaction against what is happening now, then determining whether they’d be upset by this, and then deciding whether they’re correct in being upset by this and whether you’re willing to have the argument…

Rules, on the other hand, are simple.  You set down like a lawyer with a contract, delineate what is and is not acceptable behavior in a given set of circumstances, and hash it out.  They’re clear.  Easily understandable.

And here’s my controversial statement: Rules are a failure state of a relationship.

Not “the sign of a failed relationship.”  Many functioning relationships have rules.  But I’d argue that most of those relationships have a weak point that’s been poorly shored up, and relationships with a lot of rules are often on the verse of collapse.

“What’s wrong with rules?” you ask.  “Aren’t rules clear and easy to follow?”  Well, yes.  And no. There are millions of laws on the books out there, and having watched my wife do law, you could dispense with 95% of them if everyone just went by the tenets of “Be fair, be honest, and don’t be a dick.”  Most people can spot dickery in the wild, but there’s a significant percentage of folks who go, “No, that’s not dickery, that’s just good honest business practices!” or “That’s a perfectly fair price I’m offering this man with no recourse!”

So what happens?  You codify.  Endlessly.  Exactly what percentage of orange juice must you have in a drink before you can call it “natural ingredients”?  How many square feet can you devote to a home office before you can write it off on your taxes?  Basically, all you do in law is take a basic principle and narrow it down to precise, exacting terms – terms that are ludicrous when you look at them.  So, okay, 30 fly eggs per 100 grams of pizza sauce is okay, but 31 is just crazy?

But that’s what happens when you turn “fair” into “law” – you wind up with an arbitrary marker.  And maybe your pizza sauce contains 20 rat hairs, but hey, that’s not on the books, we didn’t check, that’s totally cool.  Until somebody complains about their furry pizza, and wham.  One more guideline for business owners to feel resentful about checking.  They feel hemmed in, taking this extra time and expense to have to someone inspect their pizza for infestations.

Which is what happens with relationship rules.  You think they’re well-defined, but often there’s a lot of room just outside the defined zone to cause further problems. And they cause resentment.

“You can’t sleep with other people,” goes the rule.  But can you kiss them, even if you never intend to sleep with them?  Can you flirt with them?  Can you go over and spend time at their apartment alone?  Can you give friendly backrubs?  Tickle fights?  Beatings at the club?  Beatings in private?

You’d think those should be simple questions – but the fact is, generally if you say, “You can’t sleep others,” then one or more of those things will often cause agita. Because the rule is “No sleeping with other people,” but the problem it’s attempting to address is something like, “You can’t form romantic, intimate bonds with other people, because that would make me feel completely insecure.”

The problem with rules is not what they’re intended to do – which is minimize hurt, a valid goal – but rather that an excess of rules encourages a certain laziness in expectation management.  People follow the rules blindly, forgetting why they exist, and their mental map often fails to take into account all the other things that might upset their partner. And so their partner piles on more rules, trying to shut off the undesirable behavior, not realizing that their partner literally just doesn’t get the root cause that all the other issues stem from.

Rules are not inevitably bad.  They’re often a starting point for a good mental map; I’ve been on hiatus from new sexual partners now for eight months as I try to devise a better set of rules that will lead to my long-term partners being happy.  But the rules are not the rules.  The rules are there so I can see what I’m doing wrong in creating new relationships (and I was doing things wrong, as far as I’m concerned), and create a new mindset that’s going to make anyone I’m dating happy.  And when they’re done, it won’t be a set of law, but rather a mental map of good expectations that works.

In other words, I’m developing rules as a method of what my partners expect of me.  When this process is complete, then I won’t need rules.  When I date other women, I’ll know exactly when I’m pushing the limits of my current lovers’ comfort zone.

Now, the danger of valuing expectations over rules is that there is the unspoken assumption that “If I just make my partners happy, then I’ll have a great relationship!”  Which is, of course, ridiculous. Sometimes, you go through all the effort of forming a proper set of expectations, understanding exactly what actions will make your partner happy… And discover that the only way you can keep them happy is to be miserable.

It also doesn’t exempt you from fights.  Even when I know exactly how Gini’s going to feel sometimes – and expectations being as inaccurate as they are, I’ll say that after thirteen years of marriage I still have about a 1 in 20 shot of getting it wrong – there are times when I have to say to her, “Look, I know you feel this way, but that’s crazy.”  And she has to do the same with me.

Then there’s all the times I get the expectations wrong, and have to talk about that.  The goal is not to be perfect, of course – that way lies madness – but to create a working model to determine what, if anything, you need to talk about in advance.  Which involves finding new information.

It also doesn’t exempt you from using that information.   The reason New Relationship Energy gets such a bad rap in polyamory is because people will meet a new partner and just fucking forget to run the actions by the Expectation Engine. Why should they?  That’s effort!   This is love!  I don’t want to think about old him when new him is right here, kissing me!  And so, rather than having to deal with any sort of model (which takes a fair amount of brainpower at all times), many kinky folk go, “Fuck it, I’m not bothering to consider other people’s emotions at all, I’m just demanding no strings whatsoever.”  Which is a workable way of doing it.  (Or, you know, you just date people with low expectations.  Which is also workable.  Which is also not me.)

Furthermore, expectations are not only nebulous, but they’re mutable.  What I wanted six months ago isn’t what I want now.  The reason they tell you that communication is a good idea is because the best way to keep those mental models updated is to spend time together, to be open to new experiences, to pay attention. I’ve broken up with people not because they’re evil, but because what they came to want out of a relationship wasn’t what I wanted, even if it we’d synced up at the beginning.

But I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that properly managed expectations are the key to a happy relationship.  Not rules, because rules are stiff and generate conflict, but a mutual understanding of what you think is fair and what you want of each other.  Which, when done properly, is wondrous.

1 Comment

  1. Stef (Soapwench)
    Aug 21, 2012

    I like what you said about expectations.

    My foundation partner and I distinguish between Rules and Boundaries. Rules are…firmer…like a metal ruler. We only have a few and they are related to safety and safer sex practices: Blood tests before bodily fluids, condoms unless fluid bonded, we know where each other will be, meeting each other’s PNP (potential new partners ) before intimate contact.

    Boundaries are short term. They are usually there to help someone feel a little bit safer as they work through feelings and emotions…a bit of a life raft as they tread water in the vast sea of insecurity. For example, he started spending the night with Ex Girlfriend Who Was Monogamous and Wanted Me Out of His Life (say that five times fast). I asked that I know in advance, not last minute, at least by the time we hit the gym, so I could adjust my expectations and that he tell me why, even if it was just…I miss her. That kept me from spiraling down into negative thoughts about why he might be spending time with her. (She’s skinny and sexy and he’s going to move back in with her because I’m an ugly whale.) Towards the end of their friendship, I was close to not even needing the advance notice. My need for these boundaries lessened.

    I don’t believe we can build such an extreme framework of relationship expectations that we can know all, or even most, of our partners’ reactions. I think you’re being a bit silly and, if I may say it, (swimming in a vast sea of it myself) insecure. I believe that on-going and consistent communication, and even throwing up a short-term boundary to help through a sticky situation, is a better tool. If you give your partners information about your hopes, dreams, desire, emotions…with regards to a new partner, as they grow, change and you experience them, it’s helpful for them to know where your heart and head are at.

    I often want to know ALL the information ahead of time, especially when I don’t feel in control as it sounds like you feel.

    I will be interested to hear how this experiment works for you, if you’d care to post or even email me directly.

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