So with Valentine’s Day 2016 having come and gone, I’ve been doing a little thinking about relationships. And how expectations affect relationships for better, or worse.
I’ve experienced a lot of Valentine’s Days in my life, more than 25 of them with the same guy. He’s responsible for the best one – the time he went into the city where I worked, drove all over the multilevel garage to find my car, put a cassette tape into the player, and left a note on the steering wheel telling me to play the tape. Earlier he had recorded himself giving me turn-by-turn directions from the garage to the swanky restaurant where he’d made dinner reservations for us (yes, I believe we can credit Rob Oller for the invention of GPS). When I saw his handwriting taped to the wheel, I was astounded. I don’t even remember the restaurant; it’s not important. People record themselves all the time now, but back in the early ‘90’s this was not a thing, and what sticks with me is the stunning sound of Rob’s familiar voice coming out of my speakers as if he was in the car with me, and the thought that he must really love me to go to that much effort.
This is in sharp contrast to my worst Valentine’s Day (different guy). In high school I once happened to have a boyfriend over Valentine’s Day. I would like to note that boyfriends were very, very scarce in my life, so this was a big deal. Finally, all my romantic dreams were about to come true. I would be like all the other girls because I had Someone Special for the big day. He (I can’t even remember his name) took me to a local pizza place for dinner.
It was a disaster.
I adore pizza; it’s next to chocolate cake on my list of favorite foods. But the pizza place did not pass muster as a refined gathering spot, and my ordinary date was not the prince of my dreams. I was not a princess. I sat in the noisy little place with its greasy slices and greasier cooks while my imaginings slid right into the brick wall of my expectations.
Fast-forward a few years to Rob’s stellar plan; he pulled off a great night precisely because he exceeded my expectations. But letting expectations be the measuring rod of our relationship isn’t sustainable. If I think that Rob’s job is to perfectly fulfill my need for love and respect, to never disappoint me, we’ll both be driven to despair.
I think we all know the way to handle our relationships boils down to Matthew 22:39, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not only is it a command to love, but it contains a built-in assumption that we love ourselves. Within the command is the assumption that what is worth loving has value. So at the very least, we can expect to be treated with dignity by other people, and should treat them with dignity. The command is the starting point for all human relationships.
But from there, things get murky. The command doesn’t come with a step-by-step DIY guide – and we humans don’t do well with uncertainty. Log onto Facebook at any given moment and you’ll see all kinds of relationship advice: Take care of your needs first. Move on if your partner can’t meet them. Click onto a conservative Christian website and you’ll read: Put everyone else first. Especially if you’re a woman.
Meanwhile our need to be loved and to love rises up in a cloud of expectation. Left unfulfilled, we become hungry, need coiling our bellies.
I don’t believe the solution is to make more relationship checklists or read more books. I don’t believe the solution is to chuck all our expectations, or lower them, or raise them. We aren’t capable of this, because we can’t help having expectations. I believe the solution is, in part, to learn to live with uncertainty. To learn to live knowing all our needs won’t be met this side of heaven. To live to extend grace and receive it.
I’ve realized the only One of whom I can have wild expectations is God. People will disappoint us even on their best days, and perhaps will disappoint us the most when they’re trying hardest not to. I hardly know my own heart most of the time, so how can I expect Rob or anyone else to read me? Lately I’ve just been trying to love people without thinking too hard about whether they’re loving me back the way I want them to. I’m trying to lay down the expectation that people should do for me what only God can do.
While we will have wild days with our loved ones, those times they’ll blow us away with their thoughtfulness and we’ll gleefully soak it in like butter on toast, at the back of my heart lies the thought that God is my deepest source of love. All my streams are in Him, as Psalm 87:7 says.
Photo via Visual hunt