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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day: Unrealisic Expectations Can Lead to Great Disappointments in Your Relationship

Feeling Disappointed on Valentine's Day due to Unmet Expectations:
Valentine's Day, like so many other celebrated occasions, is one of those times when people often feel disappointed because their expectations have not been met by their romantic partners. It's often a time when people in relationships expect certain big gifts, which might mean a diamond engagement ring or some other large gift. When those big expectations are not met, it can lead to big disappointments and a lot of pressure and anxiety for the other partner.

The Origin of Valentine's Day:
The origin of Valentine's Day seems to be somewhat in dispute. As far as I can tell, it's based on at least two (some say three) martyred saints, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. There isn't much known about these two saints, except that there was nothing romantic about their stories and they lived some time in the Third Century AD. Others think that Valentine's Day is connected to an old Roman pagan holiday called Lupercalia, which was related to fertility rites, and was celebrated between February 13th-February 15th.

The Commercialization of Valentine's Day: What's Important in Your Relationship?
The idea of a romantic Valentine's Day came much later with the making of home made greeting cards with hearts and cupids around the 18th century. Since that time, Valentine's Day has been commercialized and there seems to be increasing pressure and expectation for big gifts. With all the emphasis on gifts, what often gets lost is the expression of genuine love and kindness between two people, as if that's not enough.

But is this reasonable and should we stop and think about what's really important in our relationships?

As far as I know, there hasn't been any research to show that big, showy gifts on Valentine's Day are correlated with successful relationships. However, there has been substantial research over the years to show relationships that are based on unrealistic expectations and an emphasis on grand gestures or big gifts, and less emphasis on love, compassion, kindness and being there for each other, are less likely to succeed.

I'm not saying that it's wrong to want a special gift on Valentine's Day. We all like to be treated special at times. But you need to be honest with yourself and your partner as to whether your expectations are realistic and reasonable, given where you and your partner are in the relationship. You need to take into account the level of commitment, timing, what you and your partner can afford, and the context of your relationship.

A gift that is sincerely given by your partner, whether it was what you wanted or expected, is to be appreciated for the intention that it represents. If your partner gives you something other than what you hoped for, you shouldn't take it as a sign that your partner doesn't love you.

Equating gifts with love is a slippery slope. Not only is it overly materialistic, but when you think about it: What material object would be big enough to show your partner's love?

Inability to Make a Commitment is Another Matter:
On the other hand, if you and your partner have been together for a while and you want more of a commitment from him or her and your partner has been unable to give that commitment, all other things being equal, that's a different story. Valentine's Day might represent to you another occasion that has come and gone, possibly like Christmas and your birthday, when your partner is unable to commit. At some point, only you can decide how much longer you want to remain in a relationship where your emotional needs are not getting met. That's different from material wants. And what constitutes a reasonable time frame is different for each couple. But that's a subject for another post and it's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm referring to unrealistic expectations in committed romantic relationships where people get carried away with how "it's supposed to be" on Valentine's Day without regard for their circumstances in the relationship.

What are Unrealistic Expectations in a Relationship?
To a certain extent, this is subjective. There are many ways that we can have unrealistic expectations in our committed relationships, especially when we're focused on getting what we want and not taking into consideration other factors in the relationship.

The following vignette, which (as always) is a composite with no identifying information about any particular client, is one example of how unrealistic expectations can lead to big disappointments:


Linda, who was in her mid-30s, had been coming to see me for individual psychotherapy for several months when she came to her session, just after Valentine's Day, to talk about how disappointed she was that her boyfriend didn't give her an engagement ring. When she came to therapy initially, she came to work on her anxiety about wanting to get married and have children before her late 30s.

According to Linda, she loved Tom very much, and he was loving and caring towards her. After a couple of months of dating, they made a commitment to each other not to see other people, and they were both faithful to that commitment. The relationship seemed to be going well at first, but not fast enough for Linda, who was very focused on getting married and who had legitimate concerns about having children at her age.

Linda had no doubts about Tom. They shared similar values, and she felt that Tom would make a wonderful husband and father. They were in the second year of their relationship, and the big obstacle between them was Tom's young children from his first marriage. Tom had two young sons (7 and 9) from his first marriage. The arrangement that he and his ex-wife worked out was that he saw his children every other weekend. In general, Linda liked most children very much, but she admitted that she couldn't help feeling jealous and resentful towards Tom's children whenever she was around Tom and them. According to Linda, they were well behaved, kind children, and they accepted her as Tom's girlfriend. She couldn't attribute her resentment and jealousy towards anything that the children did or that Tom did when the children were around.

As we continued to explore this problem in Linda's psychotherapy sessions, Linda realized that, even though there was no objective reason for her to feel neglected or mistreated by Tom when the children were around, she still felt irritated and annoyed with the children. She tried to conceal her feelings from Tom and his children, but Tom picked up on her resentment and jealousy, and he had concerns about her feelings with regard to their taking the next step in their relationship.

Linda often felt moody a day or so before Tom's children came to visit him. Without realizing it, she would sometimes pick a fight with him a day or so before to avoid seeing him with the children. Even after she gained some insight into what she was doing, she found it hard to stop feeling resentful and jealous. After a few arguments about this, Tom told Linda, in no uncertain terms, that he was not about to give up seeing his children--not now or ever--and Linda would need to work out whatever negative feelings she had before he would consider getting engaged. They continued to see each other, but there was some tension in the relationship.

All of this occurred several weeks prior to Valentine's Day. On Valentine's Day, when Tom came to Linda's apartment, he gave her a small black velvet jewelry box. Linda was thrilled, anticipating that there was an engagement ring inside. But when she opened the box and she saw a small pair of gold earrings, she was extremely disappointed and let Tom know. Aside from her own expectations of where their relationship should be, she was also very aware that all of her friends were either married or engaged, and she was the only one who was still single. Tom was hurt and angry at Linda's reaction. He felt that she was ungrateful and he left her apartment in anger.

In our next session, Linda and I talked about what happened on Valentine's Day in light of the issue between her and Tom about his children. We also talked about what Tom had told her several weeks before about his concerns. In light of all of this, was it a realistic expectation for Linda to think that Tom would give her an engagement ring when there was still this big issue between them about Linda's jealousy and resentment towards his children?

Most people would say "No, it wasn't realistic" but, like many people, Linda was very focused on what she wanted and felt she needed. She was very much in denial. At first, she was unable to see that her expectations were not reasonable, given the circumstances. She knew what she wanted, she wanted it, and she wouldn't let go of it.

After that Valentine's Day incident, Tom told Linda that he thought they needed to take a break for a while so they could both think about what they wanted. He hoped that, during that time, Linda would change her feelings towards his children so they could resume their relationship and Tom wouldn't feel like he was caught in a triangle between Linda and his children.

After a lot of work in therapy on family of origin issues, Linda realized that her feelings had nothing to do with Tom's children. But they had everything to do with her feelings of being neglected in her own family when she was a child. Over time, she realized that when she saw how loving Tom was with his children, it triggered feelings in her of loss and emotional deprivation for what she didn't get as a child. Also, to a certain extent, Linda felt her own need to have children more acutely whenever Tom's children were around. It made her feel jealous that he had this experience with his first wife before he met Linda. Eventually, Linda was able to work through these issues in her psychotherapy sessions. And, after attending couples counseling, Linda and Tom were able to get back together. Linda was also able to appreciate Tom's children for themselves, without feelings of resentment or jealousy. And a year or so later, they got married.

Unrealistic expectations in relationships can occur at any time, not just on Valentine's Day or other special occasions. However, the build up and the pressure of certain occasions, like Valentine's Day, often exacerbate these expectations. It's also easy to compare ourselves to others, especially if we imagine that they're getting what we want for ourselves, even if these thoughts are really our own fantasies about what other people have in their relationships and might not be accurate.

More than big gifts or grand gestures, the important elements in a successful relationship, whether it's Valentine's Day or not, are:
  • being loving and kind to each other
  • being friends
  • making a commitment to the relationship
  • being dependable and trustworthy
  • being responsible to each other
  • being respectful and treating each other well
  • having similar values
  • being willing to compromise
  • having realistic expectations of your partner and your relationship

If you feel that you're struggling with relationship issues, you might benefit from seeing a licensed psychotherapist for individual therapy or a couples counselor or marriage counselor for couples counseling.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and Somatic Experiencing therapist. 

I work with individuals and couples to help them lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.