When my son Gray was three years old, my mom stopped by our house and uttered these fateful words: I have something for you.
What is it, Grandma? What is it? He eyed the plastic shopping bag, imagining all the wonderful things it could contain…
A jungle gym.
A life-sized brontosaurus model.
An x-ray machine.
A giant squid.
He reached into bag and pulled out…
Adorable, bright, fun robot pajamas.
Now, Gray is totally into robots — those pajamas were right up his alley. But instead of smiling and thanking his grandma for the gift, he stared at the PJs, sulking.
It was simple to understand what had happened. When Grandma said she had a surprise, three-year-old Gray immediately thought toy or treat.
He was expecting a toy or treat.
So instead of being thankful and excited for the awesome robot jammies Grandma chose just for him, he stood, sad and moping, about the toy he DIDN’T get.
Gray’s own expectations were the source of frustration here. His expectations that a surprise meant a gift or a toy collided with the reality that sometimes gifts can be functional.
Meanwhile, poor Grandma stood there, unacknowledged and unappreciated for the kind gesture.
Of course, we saw the opportunity for a teachable moment, and talked with Gray about gratitude and appreciation.
And really, the concept seems pretty simple when we’re thinking about three year olds.
But are we adults that much different?
At a recent gathering, some girlfriends and I were discussing the difficulties of trying to plan Valentine’s Day date nights, or any date nights really. We lamented how tough it can be to find (and pay) a sitter for an evening out. Some of us have family living nearby. Some of those family members are very involved with our children. Others are not.
One friend mentioned her struggles with her mother’s lack of interest in sitting for her grandchildren. She’s close with her mom and had high expectations of how she would act as a grandma. She thought her mom would be very involved, that she would ask to take the kids on adventures, that sleepovers at Grandma’s house would allow for frequent date nights or weekend getaways for my friend and her husband.
Those things are not happening.
My friend is disappointed, but she’s also bitter and frustrated. This is not what she expected.
Meanwhile, the grandma goes about her life oblivious to what the daughter is feeling.
In reality, maybe that grandma never intended to take her grandchildren for outings or overnights. Maybe her expectations ARE just to be the fun grandma — to show up bearing gifts, to see the kids at holidays and birthday parties.
Is my friend wrong for wishing her mother was more willing to help?
Is the grandma wrong for enjoying her freedom and living her life?
Or is no one really at fault, because the origin of tension here is the basic collision between expectations and reality?
We all have our own examples of unmet expectations. I spent my first five years of marriage resentful at Chad for not clearing the snow from our driveway and walks in the way I thought it should be cleared.
I grew up in snow country. I had ideas of how a man cleared snow.
The morning after a snowstorm, male residents of my town are out before dawn with their mega snow-blowers, shovels, and ice picks, clearing the snow and spreading salt or sand.
Chad grew up in Southern Ohio. His history with snow is starkly different than mine. He didn’t have to deal with it often, and he never had to deal with it in twelve-to-eighteen inch accumulations.
During his first few winters in Michigan, he’d go out with a shovel after a storm and make a few good swipes to clear a path. It vaguely resembled walkable. But it wasn’t good enough for me.
Later, I’d go out and chip at it myself, entertaining an inner monologue something like this one:
What the hell is this? Doesn’t he know to clear right down to the pavement? It’s dangerous walking on a layer of packed ice and snow! No pride of ownership. The mailman is going to slip and break his coccyx out here. Oh, super, now Mr. Robert is doing his driveway– he must think my husband is a total deadbeat. Here I am, pregnant, shoveling snow, while Chad is off having a lunch “meeting” with his mentor! He’s probably eating my favorite southwest salad at my favorite restaurant and not thinking of me at all. He doesn’t care about me or this baby! There goes Mrs. Nichols, totally craning her neck to see my slovenly driveway – there will undoubtedly be traffic accidents on my street today because drivers are so distracted by our slippery sidewalk of doom. Crap, crap, CRAP! I just remembered…
There is no way a young flower of a Girl Scout could make her way through this wreckage to our front door. Fan-freakin-tastic, Chad! Thanks a lot! No Thin Mints this year. No Do-si-do’s. No Rah-rah Raisins! My life is ruined.
Do you SEE what’s happening here?
My expectations don’t align with my husband’s. Something that’s important to me is not important to him. And that makes me hurt and angry. It also makes me blow things way out of proportion and come to wrong conclusions about Chad’s intentions. Pretty soon, my clarity is totally clouded and I’m a dramatic diva in Sorel’s, clutching an ice pick.
A dramatic diva who certainly isn’t feeling gratitude for her husband – a husband who takes out the trash, plunges toilets, scoops dog poop, loads the dishwasher, and on and on…
I’m too busy dwelling on what he missed to be thankful for his efforts.
My friend is too focused on what her mom doesn’t do for the kids to appreciate what she does do.
My son was so caught up in his idea of a gift that he didn’t even realize he had received one.
Unchecked, these types of situations can wreak havoc on our relationships. They shift the focus from what we have to what we don’t have. They cause us to feel bitter towards others who may not even realize that we are upset with them. Worse, they keep us from owning our part, from recognizing our own misguided feelings or actions, because we’re too busy dwelling on what we see as the other party’s error.
We’re all human, and we all have blind spots. But it’s up to each of us to recognize those blind spots in order to prevent them from complicating or destroying our relationships.
What unmet expectations are we struggling with today? Are we willing to talk about our disappointments with the other party so they don’t remain oblivious to our frustration?
Have we considered that our friends’ or loved ones’ expectations may differ from our own? How can both parties’ expectations be voiced, affirmed and revised in a way that works for all of us ?
No relationship is beyond reconciliation if we who are involved show willingness to listen, speak, examine, and adjust. Healing is hard work, but the payoff is extraordinary. Richer, deeper relationships are closer than we’d imagine, and are capable of fulfilling, or even exceeding, our earnest expectations.