I’ve seen the phrase “no expectations” used a lot in the context of relationships: everything from “We have no expectations of each other; we hang out when it feels good to and don’t when it doesn’t.” to “So-and-so keeps saying there are no expectations of our time together, but I don’t know what that means.” to “I try to live with no expectations.” The more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I have come to the conclusion that “no expectations” is, at best, really poor communication and, at worst, a form of gaslighting.
Let me explain.
The idea of “no expectations” only works for a brief honeymoon period at the very beginning of new relationships when no one is sure where this thing is going. And even then, I’m not entirely convinced that there are no expectations; I think it’s simply that what we expect to happen and what ends up happening are congruent: we play, we fuck, whatever. We are also high on NRE and everything is new and exciting so it all works out.
Expectations come from one of two places: from communication and from patterns of behavior. Communication-based expectations are exactly that: you talk to each other and say where you are, what you’re looking for, and what you expect from starting a relationship with this person. That’s pretty straightforward (not necessarily easy, but straightforward conceptually, anyway).
Pattern-based expectations get trickier. They come from time and history with a specific person. Suppose you meet someone and every time you get together, you do rope (or insert your kink of choice here). For awhile, you probably don’t expect to tie every time you see them, but after months (or years) of tying, that pattern forms. So you go over there one day, and as you are hanging out, you pull out your rope and ask what kind of rope they want to do. Their response: “I haven’t really been in the mood for rope lately and I don’t want to tie. I don’t know why you assumed that; there are no expectations when we hang out.”
The expectation of tying is built on a pattern of behavior that we have done this thing every time we hang out and, without any communication or reason to believe otherwise, it’s not unreasonable to assume that we will continue to do what we have always done. We build up expectations over time, based on how our interactions with someone tend to go. This is applicable to any number of things: kink, sex, how someone behaves in complicated poly situations, housework, communication, etc.
I think the idea of “expectation” gets confused with the idea of “entitlement.” Entitlement is about someone feeling as though they are owed something from another person. Entitlement, in the rope example, is responding with something along the lines of, “Well, I want to tie, and every time we get together, we tie, so you should let me tie you because that’s what I thought tonight was going to be.” Entitlement often gets into ideas of, “well, it’s only fair…” or “You owe me…” In essence, one person saying, “My autonomy/desires are more important than yours.”
It’s completely fine to tell someone they are not entitled to your body (or time, or whatever). But by telling someone that they were wrong to have expectations, what you’re saying is one of two things: either (a) that your behavior is so erratic that it’s impossible to use previous interactions as a broad sense of understanding of how we might engage this time (which isn’t true of most of us; we all tend to have some level of consistency in how we behave from day to day) or (b) that someone’s understanding of reality is in some capacity skewed to where they are seeing a pattern of behavior that doesn’t exist- that they are objectively incorrect in their understanding of how the two of you have interacted in the past.
Maybe you’ve been tying with someone and you’re just not feeling it today. That’s totally, completely fine; there is nothing wrong with setting boundaries. The issue is when you don’t communicate that there is a change from the normal interactions- even if those interactions haven’t been explicitly talked about- and then you make it the other person’s fault for having expectations at all. At best, it’s just really shitty communication. But at worst, you are casting doubt on someone’s understanding of their reality, causing them to question, “Wait… was I wrong to think we would tie? That’s what we’ve always done… was I being fucked up and feeling entitled to this person’s body? Am I the one who is wrong here? Fuck, am I crazy for thinking we were going to tie?” Causing someone to question their own reality and sanity is gaslighting.
Expectations are part of the natural evolution of relationships. And no, we don’t always communicate our expectations because sometimes, they are based in patterns of behavior that we take for granted. It’s not good or bad; it’s just the reality of relationships. The problem isn’t with setting boundaries; it’s good and healthy and reasonable to set boundaries. And relationships shift and change; that’s also part of the natural evolution of people and relationships. And with those shifts comes a shift in boundaries- and also expectations. But I think a lot of strife comes in when something that has been true for an extended period of time suddenly changes and, rather than just communicating that change and working through it, one person pulls the, “I thought we didn’t have any expectations” card, making the other person feel shitty.
Most people have expectations. Some people are able to change their expectations more rapidly, some people need more time to process them. To me, it makes sense to communicate as soon as possible when something changes instead of waiting for it to become an imminent thing, but that’s just my communication style and doesn’t work for everyone. Having no expectations is nice, but I find that it only works very early in relationships, when you have no basis for comparison of behavior and haven’t had enough time to figure out what you want from each other.
I don’t like spending the entirety of relationships talking about the relationship. But on the flip side, I also don’t like being blindsided and told that I was wrong to assume relationships would continue in the same general trajectory with no reason to think otherwise. I have struggled before with the idea of entitlement and spent some serious time feeling pretty shitty about myself because I have had people throw “no expectations” at me in a way that made me question why I assumed what I did.
I think it’s really important to differentiate between desire, expectation, and entitlement. Desire is wanting something. Expectation is a reasonable assumption that something will happen based on communication and/or consistent patterns of behavior. Entitlement is feeling that you are owed something. And it’s fine to want things. It’s fine to expect things. And honestly, it’s fine to feel entitled to some things: for example, I feel entitled to a certain level of communication in relationships.
Expectations are not entitlement. Expectations also aren’t wrong or unreasonable. When we engage with another person in a myriad of situations, something is going to happen, so it’s better to have realistic expectations than pretend we have none at all. It’s ok for expectations to change. It’s ok to expect different things from people in different situations. For example, if you’ve only ever hung out with someone one-on-one and suddenly are about to be in a situation where you’re going to be hanging out with them and your other partners and their other partners… it’s reasonable to assume that the interactions there are going to be different than they are when you’re alone, but to say there are “no expectations” is setting up for failure.
Expectations aren’t a bad word. They don’t make you needy or high maintenance; they’re a pretty basic, fundamental part of being in relationships. You’re not wrong for having expectations, and no one is a mind reader- so when something changes that would reasonably cause a shift in expectation, it’s up to the other person to set boundaries and communicate, not up to you to have “no expectations”… which, to me, is code for one person getting their needs met, and the other person waiting around for table scraps.