Setting Good Expectations

Are you looking for love but finding disappointment? You may be asking for too much too soon. Five experts shed some light on what to expect from romance.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 01, 2006
7 min read

"He's just not that into you." That one now infamous line -- pulled from the legendary Sex and the City television series -- spawned not only a book, but a dating revolution that, for a while, turned many singles' lives upside down. At the core of the shake up: A philosophy that told us if your partner isn't giving you the attention you expect, don't hang around and wait for change - just move on.

But as sound as this tenet may be, it also underscores what experts see as a major problem in relationships today: We frequently expect a little too much, a little too soon. And that, they say, can spell dating disaster.

"People want to rush into a relationship and they want it all to work out right away. They become very concerned if the other person doesn't call them quickly or doesn't want to see them with increasing frequency," says JoAnn White, a relationship expert and psychology instructor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Often those expectations are simply unrealistic.

Many times, she says, one partner simply doesn't want to move that fast. So, tossing away someone simply because they want to take it slow could turn out to be a big mistake.

Psychiatrist Virginia A. Sadock, MD, notes that getting swept up in romantic desire is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, as long as we don't subject our partner to our fantasies too soon. "If there's this kind of desperation to get things moving too fast, it just pushes the other person away," says Sadock, a professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.

So how do you keep yourself from expecting too much too soon? How do you know when to hold on and when to let go? Experts say it all boils down to just a few old fashioned bylaws of romance:

  1. Don't rush into sex.
  2. Let the relationship deepen slowly over months.
  3. Think about what you bring to the relationship, not what you get from it.
  4. Understand that heady passion may not last, but love does.
  5. Work through problems to have a stronger relationship in the end.

While the wisdom may seem a bit conventional, experts say one of the best ways to win at love is to hold off physical intimacy until you really get to know someone.

"Sex changes everything," says relationship coach and matchmaker Melissa Darnay.

"I always tell my female clients not to have sex until he says 'I love you' -- because if you become intimate too soon you'll be thinking 'Oh, now we're a couple,' while he's thinking 'Oh boy that was sure fun,'" says Darnay, author of the book Dating 101.

The end result, she says is that one partner is playing by one set of relationship rules, while the other may not even be on the game board.

To avoid all these complications, Darnay advises both male and female clients to keep things light and breezy -- and put no expectations on each other -- for at least a few months.

While expecting too much is sure to kill a relationship, the opposite can also be true. Indeed, experts say that when a natural sense of entitlement doesn't rise up and come to the surface of a love affair, it won't last -- no matter how hot the passion.

As your feelings for one another deepen over time, the relationship should progress to reflect that, says Sadock. Both partners should give more of themselves and expect more in return. As such, she says it's reasonable to expect that you will not only begin to spend more time together, but also give more to each other emotionally.

"Ideally, you should expect that you and your partner will feel closer at 10 months than you did at one month," Sadock tells WebMD.

Psychologist Dennis Lowe, PhD, offers this advice to increase your odds of success: Think a little bit less about what you expect from the relationship and a little bit more about what you can bring to it.

"When you think of the traditional marriage vows when people are pledging to honor and cherish, they talk a lot about what they are going to give to the relationship. Today, when people talk about a relationship they often talk in consumer terms -- like what am I going to get out of this, and what are you going to do for me," says Lowe, founding director of the Center for The Family at Pepperdine University in California.

When partners place at least some responsibility for the success of the relationship on themselves, Lowe tells WebMD they ultimately will get more from each other.

There is perhaps nothing quite as exhilarating as the heady feeling of falling deeply, madly, passionately in love. While some call the magic "limerence" -- that almost mystical connection of body, mind and spirit -- others say it's simply the most powerful sexual chemistry they ever experienced.

Regardless of how you define it, experts say once we do experience the "high" it becomes etched in our brain. Because of that, many of us come to expect that intense feeling to remain throughout the relationship. But this, say experts, is a false expectation that frequently drives many a couple apart.

"Some people, particularly those who rush into marriage, have this idea that they are going to be madly in love with their partner 24/7. They firmly believe that not only is it going to always be this way, but that it should always be this way," says Lowe.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Why? Research shows that at least part of that initial "WOW" feeling we get with our partners may have more to do with fluctuations in brain chemistry than flutters of the heart.

"When a man and woman fall for each other, it is in our biological best interest to become a little bit obsessed with each other. There are changes that occur in our brain chemistry to make that happen," says psychologist Dennis Sugrue, PhD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and co-author of Sex Matters for Women.

Those changes, he says, not only help drive the mating process, they are also responsible for that "honeymoon high."

"It's also why sex can seem so incredible and occur so much more frequently at the start of a relationship than it ever will later on," says Sugrue.

The bad news is this surge of delicious brain chemistry doesn't last. Fortunately, however, while all this passion is stirring in our brain, a slightly different state of mind is brewing elsewhere in our psyche -- a purely psychological phenomenon that experts call "bonding."

"When the initial brain chemistry involved in the 'honeymoon' phase is over -- which it eventually is -- the bonding kicks in, a feeling of closeness and 'coupling' that actually helps keep the man and the woman together over time," says Sugrue.

In fact, at least one aspect of this tantalizing chemistry lesson was recently proven by a group of Italian researchers. In this study, doctors looked at three groups: The first was patients diagnosed but not yet treated for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); the second group was couples who were newly in love; the third group was composed of "normal' people.

Using a series of blood tests, researchers screened all three groups for levels of a chemical that shuttles the mood regulating neurotransmitter serotonin in and out of brain cells. It was already known that serotonin levels drop in folks who have OCD. It's part of what drives their obsessive behavior. So, it was no surprise to find a low level of the transport chemical in this group. And, by comparison the group of normal folks had normal levels.

But what was exciting and new: The discovery that couples who were newly in love had the same low level of this serotonin-related chemical as people with OCD. This, say experts, could mean that what we feel for our partner at the very early stages of love -- and to some extent the headiness of being in love -- may be hard wired into our brain chemistry, and pretty much out of our control.

But while the exhilarating feeling of new love may fade as time goes by, Lowe says that's not a reason to run for the hills the minute problems in the relationship arise.

In fact, Lowe tells WebMD that couples who stay together and work through their difficulties often find that happiness -- and a good deal of the passion -- returns in the long run.

That was precisely the finding of a survey conducted by the Institute of American Values. In this study, researchers questioned hundreds of American couples who said they were very unhappy in their marriages. Five years later the experts re-examined the same couples to see how their relationships fared.

The finding: Of those who worked through their difficulties and stayed together, over 80% reported that they were once again very happy -- and glad they stayed together. Those who got a divorce were no happier on their own.

What we learned from the study applies as much before marriage as after we tie the knot, says Lowe.

"In many ways, couples who go through difficult times before they get married and find a way of working it out have a better chance later on in marriage -- better than those who live in a fantasized existence before marriage and expect it will always be that way," says Lowe.

By acknowledging that there will always be challenges and difficulties along the way, Lowe says couples can develop a more realistic expectation of married life, one that will go a long way toward keeping a couple together.