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In Relationships, Expectations Can Become Reality

Expect to be treated well, and you're more likely to think you are.

Key points

  • For many people, relational satisfaction involves a level of perception over reality.
  • People who are happy in love describe their partners as meeting their relational needs.
  • Partners who expect to be treated well by their partner often perceive that they are.

We often think of self-fulfilling prophecies as thoughts and beliefs that govern the extent to which pre-conceived expectations materialize. People routinely question the extent to which they contribute to their own fate by behaving in a fashion that is creating the outcome they either hope for or fear. And for many people, outcomes involve a level of perception, often based on what they expect. According to research, perceptions within romantic relationships may be uniquely predictive: In life and love, we perceive what we expect.

How Positive Relational Expectations Materialize

Samantha Joel et al. (2022) in a piece entitled “Expect and You Shall Perceive,” investigated the link between romantic partner behavior expectations and perception.[i] They begin by noting that individuals who are happy in love describe partners as effectively meeting daily relational needs. But on what foundation do they base that perception?

In their research, Joel et al. selected 21 specific, highly desirable behaviors that partners could engage in consistently, including supporting each other’s interests, expressing physical affection arranging enjoyable activities together, and bestowing compliments. Over the course of three studies, they examined the extent to which partners expected versus perceived these behaviors from their partners, from week to week.

Joel et al. found that partners who expected more positive behaviors from their significant others perceived more positive behaviors, regardless of the actual amount of positive behavior reported by their partner. They note that this provides strong support for perceptual confirmation, showing that people perceive what they expect to perceive, as opposed to the behavioral confirmation hypothesis, holding that individuals tend to behave in a manner that conforms to the expectations of others.

The Power of Positive Expectations: When Perception Is Reality

Joel et al. describe their findings, supporting a perceptual confirmation pattern, as “good news for couples.” They note that partners who have built a reputation for engaging in positive behaviors for the sake of their romantic partners will be seen as doing so, notwithstanding the actual amount of positive behavior they engage in within a given week. They note that partners who have established this reputation might not disappoint loved ones even during an “off” week where they engage in less positive relationship behaviors than usual, because their partner’s expectations may positively bias their perceptions of relationship input.

Assuming one is not intentionally and willfully ignoring dangerous red flags, a relational self-fulfilling prophecy may impact positive perception. Considering that the reverse could be true as well, the key appears to be remaining sufficiently alert and clear-eyed, even when admittedly viewing a partner through rose-colored glasses.

Facebook image: George Rudy/Shutterstock


[i] Joel, Samantha, Jessica A. Maxwell, Devinder Khera, Johanna Peetz, Brian R. W. Baucom, and Geoff MacDonald. 2022. “Expect and You Shall Perceive: People Who Expect Better in Turn Perceive Better Behaviors from Their Romantic Partners.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, November. doi:10.1037/pspi0000411.supp (Supplemental).

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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