How Expectations Shape Our Experiences

Self-reflection is key to understanding the deeper issues that exist within a relationship. For example, why does it bother you every time she leaves her house slippers in the middle of the hallway? Or how come when you feel sad, you express it as anger? Understanding the role and influence of our family or origin helps us to know more about why we became who we are. However, there is a strong connection between how a family treats you and the expectations you grow up with about the world and other people in your life, called the internal working model.

The internal working model (IWM) is the way that we understand and define ourselves and our expectations about the world and our relationships in it. Our IWM is created by our relationships with our parents because they provide us with a mirror of our own emotions, experiences and expectations. For example, a baby who cries incessantly and is inconsistently picked up is more likely to develop an IWM that says that his needs aren’t important. An infant who cries incessantly and is picked up at every cry, squeak and sneeze is more likely to develop an IWM that he can’t soothe himself and is dependent on others. A parent who encourages self-soothing and allows the child to cry once in a while but is quick to respond to provide care, food or safety if needed is encouraging a secure attachment and one that will promote an IWM that tells the child that he is worthwhile and capable of being independent.

Not only does it influence how we see ourselves, but it affects the story that we tell ourselves about who we are. And it significantly impacts what we expect from other people in our lives. An obvious example is if a parent is overly critical of their child, always nitpicking on little things that can be improved or done differently, the child grows up expecting that 1) his opinions or points of view or he himself is flawed and 2) others in his life such as his supervisors, friends, significant others etc will also think the same. He is more likely to present himself in a less confident manner possibly even increasing the chance that he may be picked on, ridiculed or not taken seriously.

IWMs and attachment issues are usually set when we are young and are most often associated with problems in the parent-child relationship. However, traumatic experiences such as experiencing violence or assault (particularly sexual) can significantly alter positive IWMs. Regardless, issues with a person’s IWM resurface when adults enter into a serious relationship. The problematic expectations that we have of our parents are often directly repeated with our significant other. Adults who have a minimizing attitude toward their parents (e.g. “My mom is so critical of me. She never says anything nice about me but at least I should be grateful that she makes dinner so I don’t have to worry about that.”) will repeat these exact expectations in their relationships as adults (“Well at least she doesn’t hit me. It could be so much worse.”)

Understanding what your expectations are of others and then looking back at how your family of origin helped shape those expectations will help shed light on the cyclical arguments that you find yourself in with your partner.

The beautiful thing about IWMs is that they can be reset by having a strong, positive, nurturing relationship with your significant other. By experiencing stability, compassion or whatever else was missing from your relationship with your family of origin, you will be able to have healthier expectations of yourself and the people in your life. This of course requires having adequate insight to be able to acknowledge that there was something lacking in your relationship with your family of origin which, for most people, is very difficult to do. It’s particularly crucial to do not only to ensure a happy relationship with your significant other but to ensure that you don’t repeat these same issues with your children.

Here are two short examples to illustrate the IWM at work.

Rishi grew up in a family where his 2 brothers and both of his parents were extroverted and loud, whereas he was introverted and more soft-spoken. Decisions were made by who could most loudly express what they wanted to do. Rarely decisions would go Rishi’s way because he was never loud enough to have his voice be heard. When he met Leena, he expected decisions to be made by her choosing to do what she wanted and him going go along with the unilateral decision. When she asked him for his opinion prior to even small decisions, such as what movie to watch, he was surprised.

Ruchi had 3 brothers and growing up they, along with their father, spent little time helping around the house. Ruchi felt more like her mother’s partner than her father did as she helped her clean, cook and run the household from a young age. When she met Farhad, she immediately began taking over the role of managing the house and his schedule just as she had done for her brothers and father. One day when she came home from work and he had cleaned the house and begun making dinner, she was shocked and did not understand what he was doing. At first she thought he had done something wrong and it took her much convincing from him that he did it just to be nice and treat her to a special meal.

You will notice that when your IWM is challenged, you will often feel surprised because the actions do not match your expectations. Take note of that surprise and when you have a chance, think about what you would have expected instead that would not have been surprising. Once that is identified, look back at your family of origin to see where and how you developed the expectations that you did. You will be amazed at the amount of insight into your own romantic relationship you develop by looking at your expectations and their origin.

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