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The Relationship Saboteur

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

There is a silent saboteur in all relationships, and the most insidious aspect is how it disguises itself as an essential prerequisite for intimacy and happiness.

I'm talking about expectations. And especially unspoken expectations.

We all hope for certain things in our most intimate relationships, like little signs along the way that tell us we're with the right person, we're truly loved and appreciated, we can be happy. You certainly couldn't not desire your partner's commitment, affection, and sacrifice. But the ways and the insistence in which we expect their sacrifice has a powerful impact on our ability to enjoy the relationship, and appreciate the person.

Attitude Versus Gratitude

couples therapy in loveland with mike ensley

As a couples counselor I've watched numerous spouses respond to their partner's desire to feel more appreciated with a dismissive eye roll. It's not uncommon, when a husband or wife expresses their wish to feel more valued for what they do, for them to be met instead with invalidation and sometimes even mockery.

The amount of sacrifice we expect of our partner--and the emphasis we place on our expectations--can not only worsen our disappointment and resentment when expectations aren't met to our satisfaction, it can decrease our enjoyment and appreciation when they are.

A recent study of hundreds of people showed a strong correlation between high expectations of partner sacrifice and decreased satisfaction and gratitude toward the partner, regardless of their ability to meet expectations (Righetti, Visserman, & Zoppolat, 2019).

People who had lighter demands of sacrifice from their partner were more apt to notice and express appreciation for compromises and concessions from their loved one.

Expect the Unexpected

What's the story you tell about the relationships in your life? Does your partner know the standard to which they're being held? If you're not quite at peace with the level of satisfaction in your relationship, here are some good questions to ponder:

  • How often do I feel genuine gratitude toward my spouse?

  • How often do I feel resentment toward them?

  • When my partner makes an effort or a sacrifice on my behalf, am I more likely to feel like saying "thank you" or "about time"?

  • How much of my personal happiness and contentment am I making them responsible for?

Reevaluating the demands you place on a relationship can be a far more freeing and refreshing experience than waiting, with growing dissatisfaction, for them to be met.

Of course, there are certainly legitimate reasons to feel concerned about your partner's engagement. People do turn inwards, check out, and neglect their marriages all the time. Wherever your troubled relationship falls on that spectrum, it's going to take some sifting and sorting--and being vulnerable--to get at the authentic story.

When you're ready to go there, I'm here for you!


Mike Ensley is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Loveland, CO.

Zoppolat, G., Visserman, M. L., & Righetti, F. (2019). A nice surprise: Sacrifice expectations and partner appreciation in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.


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