Knowing when to aim low

Managing explanations can involve reconciling the contrdictions, writes life coach Jan Aitken.

I was intrigued by the title of a recent article in The Guardian newspaper emailed to me by my partner.

It was about marriage, but contains some relevant lessons applicable to relationships in general.

Daisy Buchanan, a United Kingdom columnist and features writer, had penned a column titled "The secret of a happy marriage? Low expectations''.

On reading the title I burst forth (in my head) with "What? Low expectations. That's terrible. That'll get you nowhere!''

However, I read on, all the time preparing to build my argument as to why low expectations should not be a starting point (or any point for that matter) for any relationship.

Surely that would be settling for second best!

As I read on, I understood what she was saying. Perhaps the column title had been deliberately provocative, but her message was a sound one. She reflected on research carried out by Dr James McNulty.

He found that holding impossibly high levels of expectations was as damaging to a relationship as undermining one another or bad communication.

He suggests relationships are stronger when those involved "realise their strengths and weaknesses and calibrate their standards accordingly'', explaining that the problems occur when people experience "a mismatch between what they demand and what they can actually attain''.

As I interpreted it, you can't have a Champagne lifestyle on a beer budget, and it's particularly damaging for the relationship if one wants a Champagne lifestyle!

When you both acknowledge where you're at and what's possible, there's less of an "aspirational gap'' because you manage the difference between what is and what could be.

I think the same lessons can be applied to most relationships, be they family, friendships or work.

Often we expect others to think as we do and expect what we expect.

However, we all have differing values, standards, thought processes and personal and professional strengths.

We all read a situation differently. No-one will think exactly as we do and that's an important point to understand.

The trick in any relationship is to be clear about what our expectations are and to be willing to negotiate around them.

So far so good. But then I was listening to a podcast from self-improvement guru Dr Symeon Rodgers.

The focus was on building a sound self-image and using this as a base for a solid fulfilling life.

His take on expectations was that you should aim high. You can aim low but what about all the potential you may not harness?

If you don't have high expectations for your life, then you risk scraping through, never achieving what you really want to and potentially getting to the end of your days with lots of regrets.

I was encountering mixed messages about what we could or should be doing with our expectations!

As I was mulling this over wondering how to reconcile two seemingly differing approaches I stumbled across another article, this one by American scientist and writer Dr Jeremy Sherman.

He has a really interesting and useful view on how to approach life.

He thinks life is full of opposites that are difficult to reconcile, full of situations and things that seem to be contradictory.

He has named the people that embrace the tension between these opposites as "ambigamists''.

They don't try to reconcile the opposites with some middle-ground universal solution that relegates everything to a wishy-washy nothing.

They seek the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for one approach over another and the serenity to accept things as they are.

It made a lot of sense to me. However, this approach requires us to be resilient and adaptable, to be open to negotiate with others and to be able to communicate clearly.

Relationships will tend to be happier if those in them have the same or similar expectations.

However, life is not static and it's possible that expectations and circumstances will change and not everyone will agree or be happy about those changes (see my March 26 column about change).

The important point is knowing when to aim high and when to aim low.

I believe that life comes in many shades of grey (no, not the recent series of books or the movie!).

Life isn't about making choices between black and white, it's just not that simple.

Keeping lines of communication open with those important to you and being willing to negotiate and be flexible about expectations is vitally important.

Now ... just what was it my other half was saying when forwarding that Guardian article?!

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