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Why Your Partner Meets Your Worst Expectations: Relationships and the Power of Projective Identific

(3 minute read)

The Non-Reciprocal Law of Expectations states “Negative expectations yield negative results. Positive expectations also yield negative results.”

While amusing, only the most committed pessimist would agree with it. And in relationships, negative expectations will very indeed often produce negative results, while positive expectations can sometimes produce surprisingly positive results.

There’s a process psychologists call “projective identification”, which works like this: I have certain expectations of the way you’re going to behave. I then act in ways which cause you to behave in exactly that way, thus fulfilling my expectations.

Here’s a concrete example:

Sarah and Mark started dating a year ago. Sarah’s father abandoned the family when she was a teenager, and she broke up with her first boyfriend when she discovered him cheating on her. She was therefore somewhat nervous about Mark’s commitment to her, and as she became more invested in the relationship, her anxiety began to rise. She worried terribly that at some point his love for her would wane, or he would leave her for someone more interesting and better looking. She found that the best way (in the short term) to reduce her anxiety was for Mark to give frequent tangible demonstrations of his affection, and for her to be able to keep tabs on where he was and who he was with. As long as they were both in the infatuation stage, this worked fine.

But at a certain point Mark fell short in the affection demonstration department, and failed to keep Sarah as informed as she wanted to be about his activities. And that caused Sarah’s anxiety to spike. She reacted with anger and hurt, and her suspicion about Mark’s level of commitment caused her to escalate her requests for reassurance, both through affection and monitoring his behavior. Eventually Mark became frustrated that his efforts to reassure her were never enough, and his feelings toward Sarah soured. She sensed his distance, and panicking, demanded even more from him until eventually he broke off the relationship.

Sarah had ‘projected’ her expectations that Mark would abandon her, and those expectations resulted in the behavior she most feared.

Projective identification works in other ways. For example, if a man feels weak and incompetent, he might see his partner as far more capable, and defer to his partner. This forces his partner to step up and become strong and competent, which in turn reinforces the man’s own feeling of weakness and incompetence. A different example, this one from parenting: A child who is told that he’s lazy may feel inadequate and bad, which in turn will reduce his initiative and enthusiasm thus making him appear lazy.

Projective identification can be used in a positive manner. Our expectations that others will do the right thing, that they will show perseverance, strength and hard work can generate those behaviors in others. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of people who’ve come from difficult backgrounds but whose lives have been turned around by that one teacher who believed in them. Sometimes people look for a fresh start in life, to go somewhere where people don’t know them, which allows them to break free of the expectations of others and become the person they want to be, rather than the person everyone expects them to be. We tend to rise — or fall — to meet the expectations of others, and behave the best around people who think the best of us.

So what does this mean on a practical level for how we live our lives? It would be nice if we could have more positive expectations of others, but that’s about as easy as using willpower to make yourself feel less sad. Instead, we can take a lesson from the world of animal training. A dolphin trainer, for example, has no expectation that an untrained dolphin is going to suddenly jump 30 feet out of the water to touch a ball suspended from a wire. Instead, the trainer rewards any behavior that comes close. A treat is provided when the dolphin swims in the area below the ball, then only when it jumps out of the water near the ball, then only when it jumps higher, and so forth, until the trainer gets exactly the desired behavior. Any ‘wrong’ behavior isn’t punished, but simply ignored. (This is called ‘shaping’ and for more information on how to shape your partner’s behavior, read this. )

In the same way, we can stop generating the behavior we expect in others by simply ignoring what we don’t like, and rewarding what we want. Thus, in the example above, Sarah would reward Mark for showing her affection and for letting her know where he is and who he’s with, but ignore the times when he’s less affectionate and doesn’t report in. She’ll still get the reassurance she needs, but she’ll be doing it with actions that don’t generate the behavior she most fears. She may still worry that he’ll abandon her, but she shows that fear in a way that reduces the chances of the worst coming to pass.

Of course, sometimes people behave the way that they’re going to behave regardless of what we expect and how we act toward them. This isn’t a magic bullet to cure all relationship ills. But if you find yourself in a situation where you’re facing behavior from another person that you don’t like, take a moment to consider the possibility that in some way, your expectations are helping to generate that very behavior -- and that you might have the power to make things different.


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