[Relationship] Expectations & Fairness


ExpectationsYou might have already guessed that I am a mediator and practice yogaregularly as my self-care routine (and running, too). Meditation helps me calm down my inner voices. Meditation shuts down my inner voices so that I can listen to my clients to the best I can empathetically. It also helps me to set my emotions back to 0 at the end of the day so that I can be as clear as I can for every client the following day.

I like to go to the meditation retreat once in a while. You might wonder why I attend the retreat and sit quietly with a group of people without talking to each other would be something fun. The exciting thing is, when I sit with a group of people without speaking, I actually feel at my most peaceful time and very connected with human beings (in spite of them all being strangers to me), without being judged by anyone’s words.

During those quiet moments in the meditation, when no one but me peeking inside my head, I see my “judgment” coming and going, judgment about people, about the world, and about myself. Being able to see these judgments in my head helps me to maintain a sense of compassion in my life, especially in my line of work.

So, you might not be surprised at all when I also realized that not only do I have “judgment” about human beings in my head, I also have “expectations” about human beings in my head too.

Before I go into the length of the wisdom of the “expectation” and the impact on the relationship with others and self, let me fill you in with the background story.

Last weekend, I went to a half-day retreat with a meditation teacher I have been following for about six months now. The typical retreat led by him is like this: 25-40 minutes sitting meditation, 15 minutes walking meditation, 5-10 minutes lying down meditation, and 15 minutes sitting meditation, and finally, group checking in for 30 minutes (you can finally talk now!). If the retreat is longer than two hours, we repeat the same process except the group checking in until the very end of the retreat. The retreat is usually silent, and this teacher hardly talks during the meditation process except a few sentences to keep us focused on the topic until the group discussion time.

I still remember the very first meditation with this teacher: feeling as if I was about to die from the silence in the environment while being attacked by all the chatter inside my head. Gradually, I adapted into his style in leading the meditation. I also slowly learn to make peace with the chatter inside my head.

However, in this half-day retreat last weekend, I was surprised to hear him talking half the time during the silent meditation.

“Gee, he talks a lot today!” My first reaction.
“I wonder why?” My second reaction.
“ I wish he talked this much in other retreats.” My third reaction.
“ I wonder why?” My fourth reaction.

Then, here comes the insight: “Why do you expect him to do the same thing over and over again every single time? Can’t he change up?”

This question to myself opens a door for me: “How many times in a day I expect people to do the same things as I expected them to do without questioning or giving them a chance to be who he/she is?”


This insight shocked me at the moment. I do understand that human beings are habitual animals. All of us have our personality and our usual behaviors. However, if I am reacting to people’s reactions or character based on what I remembered/expected, am I giving people a chance for who he/she is at the moment? Furthermore, am I giving people a chance to change, even a small one?

It reminded me of the idea of “negative sentiment override” from Dr. John Gottman’s research. From Dr. Gottman’s research, many partners interact with each other based on the “negative sentiment override,” that is, we have a cynical explanation of our partner’s behaviors. For example: “when my partner does that, I know he/she meant ……(negative connotation).”

In the therapy process, I often heard of my clients told me these:

“I just knew that’s what he/she meant because we have been married for so long!”
“I just knew that’s what he/she meant because he/she is that kind of person!”
“I just knew that’s what he/she thinks of me because I just know!”

At the moment, when I sat in the silence and listened to my meditation teacher’s words, I can’t help but wonder how much do I really know about other people? Or, maybe I am living in life expecting other people to behave the way I expected them to act “because I just know!”

Furthermore, maybe I can “predict” a person’s behaviors because of my familiarity with this person. However, the preconceived notion or judgment about a person because “I just know” didn’t seem to be fair to that person. I might be able to “predict” a person’s behaviors, but I can’t predict a person’s day and what he/she might have encountered that day.

At the end of the retreat, when I was finally allowed to talk, I brought up this insight, and my teacher said: “We have more than half of the group who are new to meditation and therefore, I gave a little bit of guidance.”


At that moment, I also gained an insight into the notion of “fairness.” Fairness means that I assumed that everyone’s situation is like me. In this example, the same experiences and understanding of the meditation process. So, I believed they should be treated the same as I was when I first went to the meditation retreat.

However, is it true? Just because I can, does it mean other people can? Only because I was treated as a certain way or certain standard, does that mean the rule should apply to other people in order “to be fair”?

It reminded me of the arguments that are often heard in the couple’s therapy sessions about the household responsibility delegations and contributions, such as chores and finances:

“It’s not fair that I did….. and he/she didn’t do……”
“How is it fair that I ….. and he/she didn’t………”

I am fully aware of gender inequality in the working place and household responsibility. Research continually shows that women are paid less at the workplace in comparison to men while doing more chores at home in comparison to men. As a result, many men expected their partners to do more tasks as if that’s the way to “make up” the financial contribution. So, I am not here to argue about what’s fair but the expectations of “fairness.”

Do I communicate my “expectation” of what’s fair clearly? How do I know my expectation/standard of fairness is the same as my partner or anyone else’s standard?

It made me think about a recent incident with my friend. A few weeks ago, I went to a movie with a friend. I pick up my friend from her house, and we drove to the movie theater together. Most people know that I am “direction-challenged.” I volunteered to drive us to the movie theater that is closer by because when we go somewhere far away, my friend is always the driver. I think it’s only “fair” that I have some contribution to our relationship. Before we left the parking garage, she offered to pay because I drove us to the theater. I declined because I thought that my contribution (driving to Lowell) wasn’t as significant as hers (driving into Boston).

So, I was fortunate that my friend values equality, but it was also clear to me that our standard of “fairness” was very different. However, how many times in the interpersonal relationship that I felt treated unfairly but not noticing the differences in the “standard” of fairness?

So, in a way, I might be upset, frustrated, angry, depressed because I expected the world supposed to operate a certain way, the way I think it’s supposed to operate, which is my way, my standard, my values, my expectations, etc..

As I walked away from the retreat, I can’t help but think about the issues of expectations and fairness in the relationship. How often we settle into a “default” status without questioning it? I realized how easy I am expecting other people to follow their usual behaviors “just because” so that I can be treated fairly. The sad news is, I might lose the moment-to-moment interaction with that person because of this default expectation.

So, here are some questions for you to ponder for your own relationship and to check if you also fall into a default status in your relationship. Pick one person in mind. It can be your significant other, your children, your parents, your friends, coworker, and or your supervisor:

1) How would I describe this person? For example, kind, loving, angry, impulsive, etc..
2) What were the examples in your past interaction with this person can support your description of this person?
3) Think about a recent conflict with this person. With the descriptions of this person in mind, how are your description of this person have or have not had the influences on your reaction to the conflicts?
4) Is there any other possible explanation of this person’s response in that conflict other than his/her personality based on the description you give to this person?

Try to use these questions to help you evaluate your relationship as many as you want. Share your findings with me in the comments below.

Extended Readings:

Test yourself for the negative sentiment override

Gender Inequality in Household Chores and Work-Family Conflict
Summary of the research results:
First, results confirm inequality because it indicates that the involvement of women in household chores is, on average, more than double the involvement of their male partners. In addition, men are more involved in traditionally masculine household chores (i.e., home repairs and family management), and women are more involved in traditionally feminine chores (i.e., childcare or shopping). Symmetrically, the subject’s perception of the partner implication confirms this difference: women perception of their men partner involvement in household chores much less than men perception of their woman partner involvement.


3 Responses

  1. Lovely post! Your insights are wonderful.

    I think it’s great that you took your judgement and instead of berating yourself, you became inquisitive, you asked questions of it and learned a few new insights.

    Seeing you alchemize your expectations into insight is so helpful to me because I often judge myself for judging others! Thanks for sharing <3

    1. Thank you for your comment and I am glad that my insight is helpful. Your comment also made me realize that one of the advatange of the meditation is to remove the judgments, no matter to other people or myself. Thank you for helping me see that. Grace

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