Great Expectations: Helpful or Harmful?

Whatever our relationship structure, most of us want our relationships to be healthy and rewarding. Research shows that couples who hold their relationships up against high standards tend to report more satisfaction in their relationships. The opposite is also true: if you do not expect much from your relationship or your partner, you may find yourself unhappy with both. If a person expects a lot from their partner it is likely that they believe that their partner is capable
of meeting their expectations.

But what happens when someone expects something of their partner that may not be realistic? This is often apparent in the realm of sexual dysfunction, and the disconnect between expectations and reality may drive people to seek help for their relationships. The disconnect can be fueled by misinformation and a lack of knowledge of how our bodies function sexually. A good example is women who seek therapy due to lack of sexual desire in long term relationships. The impetus for seeking therapy may be their own concern about their loss of desire, but their partner is often a strong advocate for the client seeking help. The expectation in the relationship is that the client should have a substantially higher sex drive and should have an internal cue that tells her when she wants to be sexual so that she will then initiate sexual encounters with her partner.

That sounds great and this system works for some people, but the problem with these expectations is that they do not take into consideration certain aspects of many women’s sexual desire and how they may differ from how men typically experience desire. Most men have the benefit of plenty of testosterone in their bodies that notify them when they want sex. Although some is present, women do not often have enough testosterone in their system to give them an internal cue that she wants sex. So the expectation that most women will have spontaneous sexual desire is unrealistic. Many women experience their desire as contextual, meaning their desire is shaped by the world around them and is impacted by an infinite number of factors including connectedness to their partner, stress, sleep, their own body image, conflict, and responsibilities. And the desire may not even come until AFTER a sexual encounter has already started.

A similar example in men is erectile dysfunction. Society does a wonderful job of setting the expectation that men should have an erection at a moment’s notice and “perform” at the drop of an article of clothing. While this may be true for some men in some stances, it is certainly not true for all men in all circumstances. While problems with erectile functioning is not necessarily associated with age (although it is associated with health problems that tend to occur more as men age such as diabetes and heart disease) changes in functioning are normal. For instance, when men are younger they may experience erections simply by looking at something or someone they find attractive, but erections may require touch and physical stimulation later in life. Erectile functioning is also impacted by internal and external circumstances such as relationship conflict, anxiety, stress, fatigue, level of intoxication, etc. When we maintain the expectation of erectile functioning at will, this applies more pressure and may actually make it more difficult for men to get and maintain erections.

So is it a good idea to hold your partner to high expectations? Yes, as long as the expectations are REALISTIC! Sometimes it can be difficult to know what may be realistic and what is not, especially because our culture does not do a great job of showing us reality regarding sexuality. So talk to people you trust. There are wonderful books and online resources on healthy sexual functioning. And just because unrealistic expectations may exacerbate sexual problems does not mean that they would not improve with some professional help.

Dr. Krista Nabar
Executive Director | PsyD, LP, HSPP

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