Surviving in Captivity, Part 3: Expectations: The What and the How, and the XYZ Formula

“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” (Anne LaMott)

But I thought…

You are holed up with your family following all of the COVID containment instructions and trying to make the best of it.

For a while, things seem to be going ok.

You’re finding a rhythm as a household, adjusting to a “new normal” and it seems like everything is going fine. 

Sure, you find yourself getting off of your “last nerve” (see Part One of this series,) all day long, but that’s good practice, right? It’s great that you haven’t had any explosions in several days, right?

You’re doing good, right? RIGHT? RIGHT?!?!?!

So why is your spouse standing in the doorway saying “We need to talk…” in that tone that means the brown stuff is about to hit the fan and there isno toilet paper in the house…?

ExpectationsApparently, you weren’t the only one getting a whole lot of vagus nerve relaxation practice. But why? You did everything he asked you to do and several things you knew he would appreciate but didn’t ask for. You didn’t even say anything when he didn’t thank you. Why is he upset?

Much of the time in moments like this, the disconnect pivots around expectations. You expected him to tell you that he was unhappy before things boiled over.

He expected you to think about “together time” and “apart time” the same way he does. You both expected the dog to tell

you when she had to go out. Oh well.

We can get angry and frustrated when our expectations aren’t met.

We can dig the negative relationship deeper by justifying our points and accusing the other person of being thoughtless, stupid, evil or whatever else springs to mind. Those choices won’t get us anywhere good.

It’s not WHAT you said…

Think back to your last argument you had that got uncomfortable and made you squirm. (What’s that you say? An hour ago?)

What it what you heard that bothered you? Or how the other person said it? Are there things you said that seemed to come out all wrong, or that set your partner off in ways you didn’t expect?


This means you are normal!!! Welcome to the ragtag and frayed human family, full of hope and full of pain. 
Enter Benita and Joy:

Benita and Joy

Benita and Joy had been together for many years when same-sex marriage was legalized, and they took the plunge. They had raised children together, had careers, ups, downs, and very full lives by the time they came to me in their latter 50’s. They loved one another deeply, but they found themselves drifting further and further apart with time.

Both partners worked hard at being respectful and caring. Unfortunately, that often involved making assumptions about what the other person would be open to hearing. They withheld a lot, thinking they were being altruistic by swallowing many of the things that hurt them.

Word Vomit

Much like when you overfeed an infant, ultimately trying to stuff too much into a human psyche can result in projectile vomiting. Here, in the heart of their middle age, deep in the time of life where we decide life is just too short for BS, Joy and Benita had become increasingly less willing to hold back.

In the crucible of the COVID Crisis of 2020, the word vomits started coming fast and furious.

Benita was especially baffled by this dynamic. How was it that her honest truth could be so horrible for the person she loved most? And how was it that this person, who had always been so easy-going was suddenly throwing unfiltered painful words at her?

She just didn’t get it.

From Accusatory to Curious

Most of us human folk have fairly impulsive emotional reactions when people who matter to us say things that sting. It’s easy to lash out, but it does not leave us in a good place. If we can use our self-regulation techniques, (see Part One of this series here,) we can think clearly and communicate more effectively.

Once we are off of our last nerve, we need to use tools to shift away from hurling accusations, to a softer stand that makes room for the other person. We are better heard, and we hear better, when we shift to curiosity.

Is it more important to you to know that you said what you wanted to say?

Or that your partner heard

what you wanted her to hear?

Think about it – When someone comes at you with accusatory, all-or-none language, don’t your defenses automatically go up? It makes it harder to hear what the person is trying to tell you, because our first impulse is going to be to defend our ego.

Tweaking your “how” so that you can effectively communicate your “what” is a tool that serves this transformation. 
Let’s let Benita and Joy demonstrate.

The XYZ Formula

I offered Benita and Joy a format for communication that helped them really hear each other much better.

It goes like this:

“When you X…

(behavior that bothers you,) it leaves me feeling… (doesn’t make you feel …no one can make you feel anything) and I would prefer that you Z... (change request.)

For Benita and Joy that sounded like this:


Joy, when you don’t look me in the eye when we’re talking, it leaves me feeling unimportant and I would prefer that you give me your full attention.

Joy: Benita, when you yell at me when I do something you don’t like, it leaves me feeling shamed, and I would prefer that you take a beat, calm yourself and use the XYZ Formula to tell me about what’s bothering you.

Using the XYZ Formula,

makes room for a different perspective, invites your partner to show up with what they are thinking and feeling in a likewise non—accusatory way,


shifts the dialogue from “Me v. You” and into “Me-and-You v. The Problem.”

Give it a try! Agree together that it’s ok to fumble through it, to mess up, to rewind and try again. As with any changed behavior, it takes time one practice, and lots of grace as we mess up and try again.

Make room for one another, and take care of your own squishy feelings that come up in the process.

To sum…

I encourage you to be aware of your unspoken expectations, and to be unsurprised that those around you also have unspoken expectations. Using self-regulation and the XYZ formula, you are much more likely to communicate well, from a place of curiosity rather than accusation.

If you add in Part Two’s tools of Fact Checking and Attacking the Problem instead of the Person, you will be well on your way to healthier, more satisfying relationships. In this softer posture, you are more able to have a real conversation about what’s really

happening, instead of getting all caught up in “the clothes the argument is wearing.”

Coming Up Next – More Tools!

In our next installment I will break down the power of The Four Answers.

These four answers have the potential to liberate your relationships to be more candid, more loving, respectful and fulfilling than you might have imagined possible!

Stay tuned to this space for: Expectations: The 4 Answers (It may not be better than Animal Crossing… but it will be more helpful in your relationships!)