Expectations and Emotional Demands

By April 16, 2023April 23rd, 2023Define self

Emotional demands and expectations go together

For most organisms, including humans, the developmental trajectory involves an individual becoming more and more capable and responsible for taking care of their own needs. Maturation is associated with the ability to function independently. As a social species, humans needed to find a partner and have children in order to survive as an extended family unit. Single families would have had a very hard time surviving on their own. This creates the need and expectation that members of the group would care for each other. A mature understanding of this recognizes the benefits and costs of interdependence so the group can survive. An immature understanding of this has unrealistic expectations of others and makes demands of others. This is pretty clear when one is talking about physical needs like food, shelter and protection that protect our physical self.

We notice what’s expected of us

Being social species, we are wired to want to be “connected” and not be alone. We are wired to seek and notice attention and approval. We also pick up the indications from others when they have expectations of us or are in distress. Remember, evolutionarily, if the group leader was expecting something, you’d better be able to notice that if you didn’t want to get into trouble. And as a species, it just makes sense that those that noticed distress in others and attended to that were more likely to survive, thrive and pass on their genes. So caring for others is part of our evolutionary interdependency.

Learning to soothe discomfort

Emotional wellbeing falls along a continuum of discomfort to comfort. We are wired to notice discomfort so we can remove the source of the discomfort. Even before birth, the fetus is learning that the mother is soothing. Co-regulation of physiology to remove discomfort develops during pregnancy and continues after birth. Infants learn how to get their needs met and their discomfort soothed by their mother, father, and others. Over time children learn how others can do things for them that allow them to feel better physically and emotionally. But at the same time, the child should be learning how to soothe or regulate themselves. The goal is to develop a responsible self that can take care of oneself.

“A reasonably differentiated person is capable of genuine concern for others without expecting something in return, but the togetherness forces treat differentiation as selfish and hostile.”  Dr. Bowen (p. 495).

The responsible self does for self even if it’s hard, thankless, unpleasant, scary, boring, or whatever creates resistance. But the less responsible individuals don’t want to face these challenges, so they want and “expect” others to handle it for them. Most of us are not finished developing our responsible selves.

A responsible emotional self

Human relationships can be very soothing. They can help you feel less anxious and more safe and secure. You can depend on others and worry less about yourself. But it is not actually someone’s responsibility to make you feel better. Unfortunately, too many family systems fail to convey this idea to their children. It’s a multi-generation process of not conveying ideas about individual responsibility. In fact, many families convey the idea that you are expected to help others, no matter what, because “they are family.” There is so much that could be written about this, but I’ll jump to the main point. We have to learn to be responsible for our “emotional self” like we do for our physical self. Just as we learn to live independently physically, we need to develop emotional independence.

It’s a fact that emotional/social pain uses the same brain circuits as physical pain. Much substance use is related to individuals just trying to feel less emotional pain. Emotional discomfort is real. Wanting emotional discomfort soothed is valid. It’s just not others’ responsibility. In fact, it’s not their ability either. The best another might do is “soothe,” but this temporary fix doesn’t resolve the underlying issue – the need to learn how to be more emotionally self-sufficient. The need to be more differentiated.

Expectations are useful. Emotional demands are not.

One good thing about expectations is that they indicate how one thinks about the world and what others “owe” them. They can indicate what an individual really needs to work on in order to mature and become more differentiated. But this takes hard work and time. It would be so much easier if one would just meet our expectations so we could avoid the work. This is where emotional demands can come in – I can either demand, of myself, to work on myself, or I can demand from you to meet my needs for attention, approval, security, self-worth, etc. I’m faced with a choice, either I convince myself to live with the discomfort and work on myself, or I get YOU to solve my problem, i.e., fulfill my expectations for attention, approval, security, etc.

Expect to be differentiated

Expectations are often an impingement on others. They can represent an area where I’m borrowing self from others instead of relying on myself. It’s perfectly fine to make agreements about sharing responsibilities. That does set up an expectation that each will fulfill their part of the agreement. But what if other doesn’t live up to the agreement? What if they don’t live up to your expectations? Then it’s time to work on differentiation.

“A reasonably differentiated person is capable of genuine concern for others without expecting something in return, but the togetherness forces treat differentiation as selfish and hostile.” Dr. Bowen (p. 495).

What’s my part in missed expectations

When I get upset because I’m expecting more than I’m getting from someone, I think it’s time to reflect on where my expectation came from. Maybe I just “expected” that my partner would be more helpful in a certain area. Perhaps early in the relationship, this didn’t come up much, and it seemed to be just fine. But over time, it has become a real issue for me. I want to “blame” my partner because they aren’t “meeting my expectations.” First of all, they are my expectations, not theirs. I should recognize this. Second, have I ever really discussed the issue and gotten an agreement on this topic? Maybe what I want in this area is quite different than what they want – whose issue is that? This is where having clear principles and conviction for those principles is important. This is where defining self can come in. Personally, I believe that I’m allowed to want whatever I want, but nobody owes it to me. I can go for whatever I want, but the consequences are my own.

I don’t expect me to choose

The real issue is this: meeting expectations often makes somebody compromise to avoid conflict. I have to choose: work on myself, just give up the expectation, or risk conflict in the relationship. Without working on oneself, giving up is often pretending and results in some level of frustration or resentment. Often we don’t want to have to choose. We want our other *to* *fulfill* our expectations so we can avoid doing the work (just like our parents did actually). The child expects the parent to make things better, to make things okay, without any risk to the relationship. In fact, the child learned that this was the case. But most of us haven’t finished maturing in this area.

Interdependence not expectations

Interdependence recognizes the need for thoughtful cooperation and being responsible *to* each other but not *for* each other. Your success is not my responsibility. My success is not your responsibility. But we *can* agree to support each other on our separate journeys to be successful. I can be all for your success without having to compromise on my success.

I think this is best summed up by Dr. Bowen:

The differentiating force places emphasis on “I” in defining the foregoing characteristics. The “I position” defines principle and action in terms of “This is what I think or believe” and “This is what I will do or will not do,” without impinging one’s own values or beliefs on others. It is the “responsible I” which assumes responsibility for one’s own happiness and comfort, and it avoids thinking that tends to blame and hold others responsible for one’s own unhappiness or failures. The “responsible I” avoids the “irresponsible I” which makes demands on others with, “I want, or I deserve, or this is my right, my privilege”(p. 495).

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on Bowen Theory on selflessness here.

I took the above quotes from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.