Adapting Your Expectations for Friendship

One of the most powerful methods for changing how well you get along with others is to learn to adapt your expectations to how people are likely to behave. In fact, this simple trick is so powerful that it makes it possible for you to have satisfying and mutually value creating friendships even with unreliable, dull or self-centered people, should you choose to do so.

Consider the complete opposite of expectation adaptation: you have a single set of expectations that you hold all of your friends to. If these expectations are very high, and require that the person has a large number of positive traits, then what is likely to happen is that your friends fail at least one of these expectations from time to time. One friend will be kind and sympathetic when you have problems, but then keep you waiting for 45 minutes at a restaurant. Another, while very punctual, will often be a bit of a boring conversationalist. A third, while a lot of fun, wasn’t there for you during your recent breakup. Since your conception of friendship requires that people meet all of your different requirements, when they fail to do so you are likely to end up feeling that the terms of your friendship have been violated. This may lead to regular arguments with your friends, or feelings of disappointed, frustration and anger. As a result it is possible that you will end up with a small friend group (only people who satisfy all of your criteria quite reliably), or end up feeling regularly annoyed at the behavior of your friends.

If, on the other hand, you set your expectations for friends quite low, then the opposite sort of trouble can occur. You are willing to befriend people who don’t add much (or perhaps any) value to your life. You are likely to end up with a wide group of friends, but this wide circle may not be benefiting you very much. Whereas excessively high expectations may make you feel disappointment, excessively low expectations can lead to you feeling used or bored. And both have a tendency to produce frustration and arguments.

The ideal case for a fixed set of expectations would be if you could set them quite high, and still find a good number of people who easily exceed them. While this can work well, for many people it is unrealistically difficult to achieve. Most people have at least one significant flaw that impacts their friends.

The alternative to having fixed expectations is to have adaptive ones. You try to expect from each person what your understanding of them predicts it is realistic to expect. You ask yourself, “given what I know about this person, what do I expect them to do in this situation?” and then you expect that. You think about past situations you and your friend have been in, and anticipate that if he has canceled 40% of the plans you have made with you in the past, there is probably something like a 40% chance that he will cancel the next hangout that you schedule. If he has been unhelpful every time you have called him when you are feeling down, you start calling someone else when you are feeling down. If you have consistently found that hanging out with him is a bit boring, you assume you will be a bit bored if you choose to hang out with him.

Adapting expectations has a handful of advantages to using fixed ones. For instance, this mindset:

  • Tends to reduce feelings of disappointment and frustration. If you know that Bill spends most of his time talking about his car, then when you make plans with him you are expecting this to happen, so are mentally prepared (or better yet, willing to talk about his car).
  • Broadens your potential friend group compared to what you could have with high fixed expectations. Diana may be unreliable, but she really is fun to talk to. So you don’t rely on her for things that are important, but you do get together every so often for great conversation. Sally often cancels plans, so when you have plans with her, you figure out in advance what you are going to do if she cancels (e.g. pickup a movie to watch or a book you are going to read). And if you’re just not in the mood to have her cancel on you this week, you don’t make plans until next week.
  • Tends to produce a mindset of problem solving. Timmy tends to be late whenever you hang out, so now you assume that this will happen and always bring a book with you, and show up a little late yourself. You assume that you could be waiting up to 40 minutes for him, and so just count on getting some reading in while you wait.
  • Makes it easier to think about friendship in terms of the value, comfort, happiness and fulfillment that a person adds to your life, rather than in terms of whether they satisfy a set of abstract criteria. It might be that Don has a very serious flaw in his personality, but that overall he still adds a lot to your life. Carrie’s biggest personality flaw, on the other hand, might be such that interacting with her just makes your life worse. You can keep Don as a friend, doing everything you can to make his big flaw more tolerable so that he adds even more to your life, and choose not to be friends with Carrie. Even if Don would not satisfy the requirements a friend should theoretically meet if you had to make such a list, it is still quite beneficial having him in your life.
  • Produces a realization that not every person needs to give you all things. Sue may be the best person you know for providing emotional support, Danny may be your favorite person to go out to bars with, and Annie may give excellent advice. It would be extremely hard to find a single person who is simultaneously as supportive as Sue, as good company as Danny, and as great an advice giver as Annie. But this is also unnecessary, as these three people together can play these roles in your life.

While adapting expectations can be quite a happiness generating and fulfilling view of friendship, it is worth noting that there are still some pitfalls to watch out for. For instance:

  • If you become used to predicting from people what they are likely to give, it can be easy to forget that you do have some ability to modify the behavior of your friends when they are not acting in an ideal fashion. So it is important to not just predict the behavior a friend who normally have, but also, predict how likely the friend is to respond well to feedback and implement behavioral changes that you suggest. In practice, it is very hard to change people’s long-standing personality traits, though occasionally you can get them to change specific frustrating behaviors (especially if they are reflective types, who are willing to accept criticism and are motivated to become a better person). So maybe you can get Timmy to show up 15 minutes late instead of 30, if you give feedback in the right way and help him figure out how to correct his bad habit. But then again, maybe you can’t correct this behavior even if you try hard, so you might have to predict it and then adapt to it in order to avoid frustration and maintain your otherwise valuable friendship with him.
  • It is also important to remember that just because you can, by managing expectations, be friends with people with many negative traits, and still find that your interactions add value to your life, that doesn’t mean that you always should be friends with such people. If you find amazing people, who meet most or all of your criteria for ideal friends, you should probably prioritize them. More generally, those people who have more of the traits that you desire and value are probably ones that you should invest more of your time and trust in.

If you are the sort of person that tends to hold friends to a strict set of criteria that you feel they must meet, consider changing the way you view friendship. Try to expect from people what they are likely to give you. Remember that people who have repeatedly behaved like X in situation Y, will likely behave like X in situation Y in the future. Ask yourself, “Given how I can expect this person to behave in the future, is he likely to add value to my life?” If so he may be worth keeping as a friend, even if he has some non-ideal traits. Then ask, “How can I adapt to the way he is likely to behave so that his negative traits become less problematic and bother me less?” Adapting expectations for friendship can allow you to be friends with more people, while experiencing less frustration and disappointment.

8 thoughts on “Adapting Your Expectations for Friendship

  1. Naomi Arbit says:

    Great article. Very measured, practical advice. I couldn’t agree more 🙂

  2. Ilya Kipnis says:

    Of course, this assumes that you’re around these people long enough to come to an understanding of their flaws to begin with.

    But given that assumption, then yes, this is a very sound line of reasoning.

  3. rmehta says:

    What if these individuals are family members? I’d be interested to hear your perspective on how this formula might change or remain the same.

  4. Hi Spenser, thoughtful post, thanks.
    “How can I adapt to the way he is likely to behave so that his negative traits become less problematic and bother me less?”
    I have in the past come up with strategies to neutralize a friend’s unpleasant side. I benefited from it and my friends do as well. Take for example, an uptight friend who is highly critical of movies. Take him to see a movie he thought was trash and his harsh criticisms after it’s over may be unpleasant and he may even go so far as to say how on earth could you have taken him to see a movie like this! By only going to see movies you know he wants to see and he thinks will be good his behavior is likely to no longer be an issue.

  5. BStar says:

    This article really helped me in my friendship thank you!

  6. gen says:

    very very helpful!! thank you!

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