When you connect with someone new, it can be exhilarating. Think about the first time you had a crush on someone or the most recent time you were looking forward to a date with a new person. You light up when you see their name flash across your phone or find yourself thinking about them throughout the day. You might start to think about all the fun things you can do together, your similar interests, how aroused you feel next to them, staying up late having conversations, or having the best sex you’ve ever had. The connection feels exhilarating, surprising, safe, fun.
Sometimes, before you know it, you’re thinking about if your friends and family will like them, if you want kids together, and how they will be able to handle your past. Alternately, maybe you’d rather keep someone in a particular place in your life. You might not want to feel like you have to call them every night or see them every weekend. Either way, we often rush past an essential part of the process: communication.
We neglect to have conversations with our new mates because we don’t want to be a burden, don’t want to be too much, or feel like other people should naturally be on the same page as us. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give a lot of space for communication, curiosity, and consent. As a sex and relationship therapist, I constantly hear folks want to talk about struggling with relationships. However, once we spend some time looking at those relationships, we find that essential conversations never happened. As a result, people develop certain sexual or relationship expectations (largely reinforced by society) that they never share with their partners but expect them just somehow to know.
More About Expectations
Let’s think about some of the language used to talk about sex and dating. Some examples: “It’s Friday night, they should have called me and made plans by now,” or “Don’t they know it’s normal to split a bill on the first date?” or “He only wanted to make out all night but didn’t want to do anything else, isn’t that weird?” or “She should know that I’m talking to other people and that this isn’t an exclusive thing” or “If he wanted to, he would.” You might have heard these things from friends. Maybe you’ve said them yourself. These statements contain uncommunicated expectations reinforced through popular culture, social media, past relationships, and antiquated conversations with parents or older folks in our lives. Unfortunately, when we implement these sorts of expectations into relationships without discussing them, resentment can build.
For example, let’s look at clients Emerson and Will, who have been dating for five months. They come in for couple’s therapy to discuss a mismatch in sex drive. Emerson would prefer to have sex more frequently than Will, and Will feels pressured and has begun to withdraw from physical touch altogether. When we talk more, Emerson shares that in their last relationship, their partner was more submissive sexually and enjoyed it when Emerson would frequently initiate. Emerson felt good taking control and wanted to apply it to this relationship.
When Will withdrew, Emerson started feeling less desirable and wanted to have more sex, as they thought it was an indicator of a “good” relationship. But Will shared that in his past sexual relationships, he felt turned on with a lot of sensual touching, massage, and kissing, and penetration felt secondary. When Emerson showed up with their needs, Will felt pressured and also questioned his masculinity as he acknowledged being satisfied having sex less frequently.
When each partner shared their history and desires, there was much more room for understanding and validation.
Unspoken expectations are challenging because of the impact on the relationship, but gendered, heteronormative language also leads folks to feel insecure about their identity. If we start to think about these expectations critically, we can permit ourselves to be transparent and communicative and ultimately get our needs met.
So, How Do We Set Expectations?
Sit with yourself
A lot of the internalized expectations we have around dating and sex come from external sources. From a young age, we hear what partners should do for us, how they should touch us, speak to us, grow with us. These messages create very rigid archetypes of what it means to be a good lover or partner, as though we should be able to copy and paste these ideas and apply them to everyone we encounter.
We should no more expect everyone to kiss us the same way as we do for them to have the same favorite ice cream flavor. If you remove what you think you should want, what do you want? If you are under the impression that you and your partner need to move in together after three years to validate the relationship, but maybe you’re perfectly content living on your own, and that’s okay. Ultimately, whatever works for your body, your pleasure, your needs, your relationship is uniquely your own, and it gets to evolve throughout your life.
Ask yourself what would make you feel seen, safe, and sexy. What would your partner do to initiate sex? How do you want your partner to celebrate your birthday? How often do you go on dates? Do you like to travel together or separately? Allow those answers to come through and be significant. Acknowledge that self-awareness lets you show up more entirely and gives other people in your life permission to do the same.
One of the biggest challenges to setting expectations is that you don’t want to feel like a burden. When you connect with someone you like or have a dynamic sexual attraction, you might feel like you don’t want to disrupt a good thing. However, not expressing your needs will ultimately not allow you to show up authentically.
Inviting a conversation acknowledges that everyone in the situation has needs. The conversation doesn’t have to look severe or intense (although it can); this can be something that you all look forward to and get excited about. Think about approaching it with curiosity: “I’d love to know what your favorite part about being in a relationship is” or “I’m excited to hear more about what you’re looking for right now.”
You could also approach it by offering something about you: “It turns me on to go down on my partner—what turns you on?” or “I’m not into dirty talk during sex, but I like to be blindfolded. What are some things you’re not into/take you out of the mood?” These are just some ways to collaborate with the person you’re dating so that you don’t feel intimidated.
Remember, it’s ok to have needs; we all do. However, the sooner we express those needs, the closer we get to feel safe in our relationships. Try to spend less time expecting your new mate to read your mind and more time validating your wants collaboratively. You’re worth having fulfilling sexual and relational experiences, and setting the stage with clarity and communication early on is one way to get it!