Many marital therapists tell couples to expect less. If you lower your expectations, the argument goes, then you won’t be disappointed by your partner.


This advice is wrong. Donald Baucom, psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, studied marital expectations for a decade. He found that people get what they expect. People with low expectations tend to be in relationships where they are treated poorly, and people with high expectations tend to be in relationships where they are treated well.

This suggests that by having high standards, you are far more likely to achieve the kind of relationship you want than you are by looking the other way and letting things slide.

The “Good Enough” Relationship

I encourage couples to strive for the “good enough” relationship, which sounds like settling for less than best. Isn’t that contrary to Baucom’s research findings on marital expectations?

Allow me to explain.

In a good enough relationship, people have high expectations for how they’re treated. They expect to be treated with kindness, love, affection, and respect. They do not tolerate emotional or physical abuse. They expect their partner to be loyal.

This does not mean they expect their relationship to be free of conflict. Even happily married couples argue. Conflict is healthy because it leads to greater understanding.

People should not expect to solve all of the problems in their relationship, either. My Love Lab studies found that almost ⅔ of relationship conflict is perpetual. As Dr. Dan Wile says, “When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.”

Further, it’s unrealistic to expect a relationship to heal childhood wounds, or to become a pathway to spiritual enlightenment or self-actualization. Eli Finkel, psychology professor at Northwestern University, encourages couples to “recalibrate” their marital expectations for these existential needs.

So don’t settle for being treated poorly. As a father, the best way to buffer my daughter from being in a bad relationship in the future is to treat her with love and respect, so she will expect to be treated the same way her partner.

In our empirically-based theory, the Sound Relationship House, we describe what couples in the good enough relationship do and have. They are good friends. They have a satisfying sex life. They trust one another, and are fully committed to one another. They can manage conflict constructively. That means they can arrive at mutual understanding and get to compromises that work. And they can repair effectively when they hurt one another.

They honor one another’s dreams, even if they’re different. They create a shared meaning system with shared values and ethics, beliefs, rituals, and goals. They agree about fundamental symbols like what a home is, what love is, and how to raise their children.

Expect that. You deserve it. It’s not unreasonable, and it’s achievable.


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More in Dating
The Truth About Expectations in Relationships
John Gottman, Ph.D.

World-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, Dr. John Gottman has conducted 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He is the author of over 200 published academic articles and author or co-author of more than 40 books, including The New York Times bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

  • June Watson

    Allowing relationships go stray without some sort of assurance has been very strange to me. A lot of spouses are out there lying, cheating, committing adultery, exposing the relationship to all sorts.
    I was able to secure and be sure that my spouse was faithful when i got someone to gain access to his phones, mails, laptop and Facebook account. It was really relieving to know that the relationship was not all in my head…i am happy to share more about my experience…Benitasher on outlook mail. Just be sure and safe out there guys. HEHE!!

    • Melvin King

      We need to have a chat, Do check your mail

  • RPD456

    What about a root cause? Some men are stand up guys say in day out but his spouse/partners out every thing else before an intimate relationship. Is that a form of emotional and physical neglect. Even with repeated direct discussion there is no change. How long is a person supposed to suffer the associated neglect and frustration before dispensing or seeking to look fir a more balanced relationship???

  • Wes

    From John Cleese, via Twitter, “Definition of an English gentleman : Someone who is never rude by accident”

    So would a woman with good-enough expectations ever date or marry someone like James Franco or Aziz Ansari?

    Were James Franco and Aziz Ansari being rude by accident – something that could be fixed by a careful reading of The Man’s Guide to Women? Or, in their view, is being (intentionally) rude simply the best way to win the game – not something they would ever change?

  • Anon47

    “In a good enough relationship, people have high expectations for how they’re treated. They expect to be treated with kindness, love, affection, and respect. They do not tolerate emotional or physical abuse. They expect their partner to be loyal. […] Further, it’s unrealistic to expect a relationship to heal childhood wounds, or to become a pathway to spiritual enlightenment or self-actualization. Eli Finkel, psychology professor at Northwestern University, encourages couples to “recalibrate” their marital expectations for these existential needs.”
    I find that the inconsistencies of kindness and respect are often tied to the other spouse’s not yet realized self actualization in his/her own journey. The two are often intertwined, and maybe that’s why I stand on the side that to be able to have a partner that can treat you with kindness, love, affection, and respect, they have to do the work of pursuing self actualization or at least fulfilling the existential needs themselves. I’ve at least not seen examples of spouses displaying bidirectional levels of kindness love and respect consistently without both partners having done some form of self actualization.
    Within the context of heterosexual relationships, I find that is why women often have to resort to pushing their partners to attain this level of emotional awareness, so that their men would be more open to influence and that the marriage will look more like a real partnership instead of women having to compensate for it.