Dear Tristan: No Expectations

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about relationship, and what it means when I say that my relationship with you is, to me, the most important thing between us. Today I want to write a bit more about something that I think is an especially effective relationship-killer.

In one of my earlier letters, I wrote:

“Many of the good, well-meaning parents I know think it’s a positive thing to have extremely high expectations of their children. There is a raging debate in our culture as to whether the carrot or the stick – positive or negative reinforcement – is more effective at getting one’s children to live up to those expectations.

I believe a better alternative is to have no expectations, and to reject the use of either positive and negative reinforcement as behavior-modification tools . . . because as I’ve tried to communicate throughout these letters, behavior isn’t the point of my relationship with you! My relationship with you is the point of my relationship with you.”

Expectations, I think, are one of the quickest ways to damage a relationship. The advocates of expectation will tell you that having high expectations of someone is a very effective way to motivate them to succeed at whatever you expect of them. And you know what? That’s true! Expectations ARE effective . . . at compelling behavior under duress. And make no mistake, it IS duress, particularly when wielded by a parent or some other authority figure against those under their authority. In cases like this, expectations are extremely coercive, because when you set expectations on someone, you are essentially psychologically manipulating them into acting a certain way.

This is true of both high and low expectations. When we set high expectations on someone, we can indeed motivate them to do something, but in the process we de-personalize them a bit . . . we tell them “This is who you are, and I will be less approving and more disappointed in you if you don’t live up to my vision for who you are.”

Similarly, when we set low expectations for someone, we’re objectifying them in the same way . . . we’re telling them “This is who you are, and don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise because I already know better.”

In both cases, we’re not really seeking relationship with a person . . . we’re seeking relationship with our manufactured image of who that person is. We’re seeking a relationship with a figment of our own imagination.

Now, there are certainly times when expectations are appropriate . . . a battlefield commander has every right to expect that when he says “go” his troops will go . . . that they will act according to their training, instantly and without question. But this is the example that proves the rule – because a commander on a battlefield isn’t seeking a relationship with his soldiers when he gives such an order, he’s seeking to capture an objective or complete a mission. He’s focused entirely on behavior, and in that moment, he should be. Moreover, any “de-humanizing” that takes place on a battlefield is not a side-effect of the battle, but a necessary part of getting men to go out and do battle to the death.

But you are not a soldier, and I am not your commander. You are a child, and I am your father. Sure, I could load you up with all kinds of expectations. I could tell you that “I know you’re better than that” when you fail at something you attempt, or “I knew you could do it” when you succeed. I could regale you with tropes like “you can do anything you put your mind to” . . . with, of course, the implication that you should put your mind to what I want you to do . . .

But I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in compelling a set of behaviors from you, nor am I interested in a relationship with some “potential you.”

I’m interested in you . . . and in a relationship with you.

This is a big part of how your mom and I relate to one another. Instead of setting artificial “roles” (mom cleans the kitchen, dad mows the yard, etc.) we don’t really have much in the way of expectations. There are certainly some things that she’s better at than I am, and vice versa . . . so, for example, more often than not, I’m the one who assembles furniture, and more often than not, she’s the one who pays the bills. But there’s no expectation there. If I have an “off day” and something doesn’t get done, that’s ok. If she needs me to step in and do something she normally does, that’s ok too. With the exception of our actual vocations – her violin teaching and my communications consulting – there is no “that’s Mom’s job” or “that’s Dad’s job.” Instead, it’s our life . . . and the only expectation present is that which I place on myself, and that which she places on herself . . . which is, of course, the essence of the internal vs. external motivation she and I have both written about. Expectations, after all, are just another form of external motivation, which as I wrote in my earlier letters is a very effective way to kill off internal motivation.

There’s another way in which your mom and I try to eliminate our expectations on one another. In the same marriage book I told you about in which we first discovered the concept of “differentiation,” the author wrote that, when sitting in a restaurant, he can always tell which of the other couples around him are married and which are not. The married ones, he said, are the ones who aren’t talking to each other.

That’s because, he said, the longer you spend in relationship with someone, the more you discover which topics aren’t “safe” to talk about. And for couples who have been married a long time, there are a lot of “unsafe” topics, particularly in a public setting.

That’s just one more form of expectation. If I “expect” you to think or believe a certain way, and you don’t, it’s going to lead to some pretty strained conversations . . . how could it not? But your mom and I don’t level those kinds of expectations at one another. As a result, we don’t have “things we can’t talk about.” We have areas where we disagree, certainly, but we’re open about them and neither of us feels threatened by the fact that the other person isn’t quite in the same place on a given issue. If the issue in question is a Big Deal, and it turns out we’re not on the same page, neither of us would feel right about asking the other to give up what he or she believes unwillingly, so we talk about it until one of us convinces the other. Let me tell you, when those conversations occur at midnight and I have to get up for work the next morning, it’s awfully tempting sometimes to just give in on what I think, and give up on who I am. But because we’re both committed to the same sort of relationship, we’re able to help one another through those tough conversations. Sometimes it means tears. Sometimes it doesn’t happen in a single sitting. But eventually, we’ve always managed to come around to the same perspective, because neither of us expects the other to just give up and “let me be right.”

Because at the end of the day, it’s not our actions or opinions that are important, but the ability to be fully and completely true to who we are . . . and to share that person fully in the relationship we have with one another. When it comes to your mom, I don’t want to know “everything about her except for the stuff she feels uncomfortable talking about.” I want to know everything about her!

Which is exactly the type of relationship I want with you. I don’t want to allow expectations to affect what you’re willing to share with me about what’s going on in your heart and in your life. I don’t want you to shrink from certain topics because you feel as though expressing what you truly feel won’t live up to my expectation.

Before you were born, I wrote a poem for you. The point of that poem was the same as this letter – that I want to know the real you rather than setting up expectations and manipulating you into being who I think you should be. It was the overall subject of the whole poem, but there are two stanzas that, I think, capture best what I’m trying to say:

And as you grow and thrive, as you explore and you discover
The ground you want your precious life to grow into and cover
My wish is not to shape your mind and body or control you
Just to know you

I’ll celebrate your joys in life and grieve with you your sorrow
Recall your yesterdays; and share your hopes for each tomorrow
But I don’t want to use them to direct you or define you
Just to know you.

That’s it, right there. That’s the point of my relationship with you. In the time since you were born I’ve gotten to realize what an amazing, wonderful person you are . . . not the amazing person you will be . . . the amazing person you already are.

That person is the one with whom I want a relationship. And the relationship I want is one in which I know you – the real you – as much as I possibly can, and in which I share the real me with you as much as I possibly can.

So I expect nothing of you . . . but I hope that you will come to think of this relationship between us as one of the most important and powerful influences you will ever have in your life.

I know it’s already one of the most important and powerful influences in mine.




Filed under Things intended for my children that the rest of you get to read too

5 Responses to Dear Tristan: No Expectations

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