What did you expect?

December 2nd, 2010

In this picture, the husband might be interpreting his wife’s anger as a sign that she is likely to become adversarial and that she is unlikely to listen to his point of view. As a result, he may have negative expectancies. Of course, it looks like the wife also has a few negative expectancies of her own, which is probably why she became angry in the first place.

Do you ever pay attention to your own expectancies?  An expectancy is a prediction you make about something you think will happen in the future.  Whether you know it or not, every day, you make hundreds of expectancies.  For example, you may predict that a friend will return your greeting after you say “hi.”  One of the expectancies I often have is that my preschool aged daughter is likely to claim she is not tired after I tell her it is time for bed.  These expectancies are important because they influence what we do and how we act.  If you expect that your partner is likely to be appreciative, you might feel inspired to give a special gift.  If you expect that your partner is likely to forget something, you might decide to provide extra reminders. 

There are two things that are important to know about these expectancies.  First, they tend to have a particularly strong influence on our actions during times of relationship conflict.  Second, they are closely linked with emotion.  These things became readily apparent to me in a study I recently completed with a sample of about 80 married couples.  Each couple volunteered to participate in this research study and they visited my research lab for an assessment session.  At the lab, they first spent some time discussing a recent or current issue of conflict in their relationship.  Next, they took a break from their discussion to complete several questionnaires.  Finally, they spent some time discussing a different issue of relationship conflict.  In this study, I was especially interested in the negative expectancies that couples may sometimes have for each other.  So, just before each conversation, I asked partners to complete a questionnaire about their expectancies.  I asked them how they thought the conversation would go and I asked each partner what they thought the other was likely to do.  What did I find?

First, I found that if one partner became angry during the first conversation, the other partner was likely to have negative expectancies just prior to the second conversation.  This means that our expectancies are based on prior experience.  If your partner was recently angry in the past, you are likely to expect the worst from your partner in the future. 

Second, I found that when people had negative expectancies about their partners, they were likely to become angry themselves.  In fact, they tended to become angry regardless of what their partners actually did.  This means that if you have negative expectancies about your partner, there is a good chance you are also feeling angry.  Even when our expectancies turn out to be wrong, we tend to act as if they were true.  What does this mean?

This means that expectancies have the potential to pull couples into a trap.  When one partner gets angry, the other is likely to have negative expectancies.  These negative expectancies, in turn, can lead to more anger, which then, can lead to more negative expectancies.  So, does this mean that anger and negative expectancies are always bad?  Actually, the answer is “NO”!  Just because there is a danger of falling into a trap does not mean these things are bad.  In many cases (but not always), negative expectancies may be justified.  In many situations (but not always), the expression of anger is beneficial for a relationship.  So, the solution is NOT to avoid negative expectancies altogether (actually, this would be impossible). 

What, then, should couples do about negative expectancies?  The key is to develop good conflict resolution skills so that you and your partner can work together to escape from traps.  As described at the pairbuilder.com website, there are several different parts to conflict resolution.  In some situations, it may be best to reevaluate your own expectancies.  Other times, it may be best to find a tactful way to express your negative expectancies.  Often, to resolve conflict, both partners need to be willing to understand the other’s negative expectancies.  The cycle of negative expectancies and anger is a normal part of any intimate relationship.  It is natural for all couples to experience this cycle from time to time.  One key to a strong relationship is to be aware of this cycle when it happens, and to have the skills to escape from the trap when the cycle tries to pull you in.

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