How to talk about expectations in a relationship: 7 tips for long-term happiness

Learning how to talk about expectations in a relationship is essential as they change over the years. Here's how to do it right with tips from the experts

Man and woman sitting on a rock on the beach hugging, representing how to talk about expectations in a relationship
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Knowing how to talk about expectations in a relationship can be difficult - even more so if you've already been with your partner for a few years. At the beginning of a relationship, talking about your needs and wants comes more naturally as you figure each other out. As the years go by though, we can assume more than we should.

It's important to discuss expectations in a relationship as they can change year by year even if nothing major happens, as well as after big life events and relationship issues. "Expectations of ourselves and each other and our lives are alive and well within us whether we speak of them or not, whether we are conscious of them or not," says Heather Garbutt, a psychotherapist and love and relationship therapist. "We may also be expecting things from our partners which we think we have agreed a long time ago, but of which they are completely unaware or have totally forgotten. This is often a source of pain and disappointment to both sides of the relationship." 

To avoid this and the resulting relationship anxiety, it's important to learn how to talk about expectations in a relationship again. Here, woman&home speaks to two certified therapists to reveal what you need to know.

How to talk about expectations in a relationship

1. Know exactly what you want

Before you talk about expectations with your partner, get clear in your own mind about what you want - for yourself, from your partner, and from your relationship. It's entirely normal to not have the same expectations for any of these that you did when you first met your partner, but the key to keeping your relationship on track is discussing them so you can grow together. 

"Sometimes this is really hard though. We aren't really used to asking ourselves what we want. In our culture, we still have “I want doesn't get” and as women, we are often conditioned to be self-sacrificing and look after the needs of others at our own expense," says Garbutt. 

"If it is hard for you to think about what you want, it can be useful to look at all the things you don't want and tease out the opposite. Just a list can be good if journalling isn’t your thing," she says. 

Heather Garbutt
Heather Garbutt

Heather Garbutt has been a psychotherapist for over 40 years and a Love and Relationship Coach for the last 7 years. She specialises in coaching people who have been disappointed in their love relationships to find true, committed, romantic love. Last year she contributed to 3 marriages, 4 new relationships and 2 new babies for women and men who had given up on the possibility of these joys in their lives. She has her own podcast, “Revolutionise Your Love Life”, and a regular blog, and writes regularly for the media.

2. Ask instead of assuming

If you're unsure about your partner's expectations in any element of your relationship, or you think they may have misunderstood yours, talk about it. "Ask instead of assuming," says Michelle Elman, aka the 'Queen of Boundaries', a five-board accredited life coach and boundaries expert. 

"We have all been raised differently and therefore we have all had different examples of long-term relationships. It can be easy to assume that the adult relationships that surrounded you in childhood are the same as your partners and that's not always the case." 

Going through changes in your relationship over the years makes this even more important. "Talking about things can start to air out the assumptions you have and you can design your own route as a couple which possibly combines both your upbringings," she says.

Michelle Elman
Michelle Elman

Michelle Elman is a five-board accredited life coach, broadcaster, and public speaker. Named as one of the most inspirational women in the UK, Michelle quickly established herself as the Queen of Boundaries. With a following of over 500,000, Michelle shares her experiences and expertise with an engaged audience who have followed Michelle’s journey and rise in popularity with pride. 

3. Make time to talk

We're all busy but if you want to maintain and maybe even spice up your relationship in the long term, making time for each other has to be at the top of your priority list, no matter what else is going on. 

"Make sure you have your regular date night," suggests Garbutt. "It is important so that you can keep or re-establish connection with each other and remember who you are as a couple. This will make the conversation around expectations so much easier." 

4. Be sure to listen

Good communication is naturally the way forward when learning how to talk about expectations in a relationship and that involves true listening skills.

"You could start a conversation with your partner about what they want from life for themselves, with you and in life, and share some of the things on your list. Gently getting this all out into the open can be surprising. You may find out all sorts of things that you didn't know [by creating time to listen]," Garbutt says. It may even help you learn how to revive romance in a relationship as well.  

5. Communicate about big events

Everyday expectations are easy to acknowledge, i.e. you expect your partner to help with chores around the house, share the responsibility of dependents, and make an effort to share the mental load in the relationship. However, big events are important too as our expectations around these can change as the years go by.

"Milestones and occasions bring a lot of expectation and if you do not communicate around them, they can become invisible tests," warns Elman. "The problem with testing your partner is that they might fail without even knowing that they are being tested. For example, if you want to big deal over your birthday this year, then say that." 

It's something Elman herself is open about experiencing the benefit of. "Words are really important to me and I'm an author so they come easier to me than some. My boyfriend finds that harder, so our first Christmas passed without a card. For Valentine's Day, I communicated that I would really like a card and I didn't just want a card with two words in it but with proper sentiments and ideally, you would write on both pages. Yes, I was that specific. I might sound needy or demanding but at the end of the day, if he didn't want to do it, it wouldn't have. By asking for what I wanted, he had a roadmap on how to make me happy and it was more useful to him to know." 

6. Recognise your differences

Even if you've been in a relationship for 10, 20 or 30 years, you may show love differently to your partner and it's important to continually recognise this to be happy in a relationship in the long term.

"There are many conversations about love languages but, in my opinion, they are quite narrow and reductionist because people showing love in different ways isn't actually limited to 'loving moments'," says Elman. "A person can show they care in an argument by leaving you alone and the other person can interpret that as abandonment when their intention was to give you space to process. Every human works differently and so more communication is always better." 

Garbutt agrees. "Through all of this, cultivate an attitude of curiosity and not taking things personally. Just hear your partner," she says.

Couple laughing together holding a glass of wine

(Image credit: Getty Images)

7. Negotiate

While words like 'negotiation' and 'compromise' are hardly sexy terms to use when talking about a relationship, they are needed. Garbutt recommends asking your partner what their (realistic) ideal life would look like and telling them what yours would look like. From there, you can negotiate. 

"Sometimes thinking out-of-the-box enables you both to get more of what you want in life and from each other," she says. "An expectation just stated boldly and out of the blue could feel like a demand and pressure."

Why is it important to talk about expectations in a relationship? 

It's normal to think that expectations are something you discuss early on, around the same time you discuss whether you're exclusively in a relationship, what a good relationship looks like to you, and what you want in the long term to decide if you're compatible. But learning how to talk about expectations in a relationship is actually a life-long process, the experts say, as what you want in a partnership changes over time.

"Expectations can change over time as our stages in life change," explains Garbutt. "What we expect from each other in our 20s is different to our 30s and 40s. We've matured, are at different stages in our careers, have had different experiences and become co-workers, co-parents, and so on. We will have adapted to cope with these stages, but not necessarily agreed on them out loud." 

Making sure the conversation about new expectations happens can prevent a build-up of resentment over time, she says. "There will have been opportunities for resentments to build up because of the lack of communication of expectations, intentions and aspirations. What we are each prepared to offer the other [may have changed too]. This can threaten the relationship and increase the propensity for you to be growing apart." It may also be a cause of relationship burnout, which many couples find difficult to recover from.

What to do if your relationship expectations are not being met 

If you've discussed your expectations but you feel they're not being met, it's not one of the signs your relationship is over just yet. It's time to look internally though. Elman has the following advice: be clear about what you actually need versus what you want and look at the root of those expectations.

"Be very clear with yourself about what is a 'need' and what is a 'want'," she says. "It's also important to look at what is a 'deal breaker' in a relationship and what you can live with. The latter is less discussed but choosing a partner long-term means there will be things about them you don't like or annoy you, and that's because no human is designed to be perfect for you or identically compatible."

Then, look at where your expectations are coming from if your partner is finding it difficult to meet them. "A lot of time when we over-romanticise relationships, particularly long-term relationships, we set expectations that are achievable in the short-term but place a lot of pressure in the long term," says Elman. 

"For example, the expectation for a relationship to be continually exciting and interesting. The reality is life is filled with boring moments and if you are not able to be satisfied in the mundane then that leads to a relationship that is less sustainable as you will always be chasing the high."

By opening up a conversation around expectations and continually creating the space for it, you can in turn learn how to build trust in a relationship again as you've both given each other the opportunity to discuss your needs and wants in a healthy, productive way. 

"With this preparation, it becomes a suggestion and a request which gives much more room for manoeuvre," says Garbutt. "The response becomes a choice and a gift and is much more likely to be forthcoming."

Grace Walsh
Health Channel Editor

Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. She is also a qualified fitness instructor. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. 

A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.