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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Khashadorian

How we meet expectations in relationships

I first heard about the four tendencies on a psychology podcast where Gretchen Rubin was being interviewed about all the research she had done.

As she described the four different approaches people take to responding to expectations, I had so many lightbulb moments of ‘oh that’s why I do that!’ , ‘that’s why when I ask my husband to not worry about that he can’t.’ Then it moved into ‘oh I understand why that couple struggle to make requests of each other.’ I felt the Four Tendency model explained why couples might still be struggling even when they are using really good communication approaches.

Gretchen Rubin found her way these categorisation by exploring how people respond to expectations. She divided these exceptions into outer expectations which are the expectations that other people (including society and organisations) place on us; and inner expectations, which are the expectations we place on ourselves. From there she found that we fall into four distinct categories.

Upholders- they respond readily to both outer and inner expectations. The strengths of this type are that they can be real self-starters and are reliable and conscientious, but they can also be rigid and struggle when plans change.

Questioners- they question all expectations but they meet an expectation only if it feels justified to them. This means that they can suffer from analysis paralysis and sometimes not observe expectations that others find fair or non-optional. But they are interested in creating systems that are efficient and effective.

Obligers- they respond well to outer expectations but find it hard to meet inner expectations. Obligers can be great bosses and leaders but they can be susceptible to overworking and being exploited.

Rebels- they resist all expectations. They are great at thinking outside the box, are spontaneous and are in touch with their authentic desires. But they can be perceived as uncooperative, resistant and inconsiderate.

I found this really interesting from a relationship perspective and felt it gave me a lot of information to help my couples communicate better. Being understanding and accepting are good qualities in a relationship but the description of these tendencies help give the differences between us more context.

Being in a relationship with an Upholder

In many ways it is great to be in a relationship with an Upholder because they are likely to meet the expectations that you express to them but they will also want to uphold other external and internal expectations so they are likely to follow rules and not be very flexible if you like to be more spontaneous or can be someone who changes your mind.

It is helpful for an Upholder partner to be reminded of inner expectations so that they don’t get too stuck on the external ones. They also hate making mistakes and can be reactive to this. A partner can be supportive by asking them questions like, “Is that important to you?” “You don’t have to do that, you have a choice” “You made mistake, everyone does.”

An Upholder partner may also get frustrated by partners who are different and who don’t meet expectations. They need to be reminded that to meet expectations Questioners need reason; Obligers need accountability; and Rebels need freedom and choice.

Being in a relationship with a Questioner

As the name suggests, Questioners question everything. They do not meet expectations because it is expected of them, instead meet expectations based on inner drives that are developed through information gathering and reason. This can be challenging in a relationship because they can either make their partners feel like they are being interrogated with their questions but also they need more reasoning and explanation from their partners to be convinced to do anything.

They are great as a partner because they often do all the research and have the information to make good decisions. They can also help obligers and upholders to not be so compliant to external expectations that may not be beneficial for them.

Questioners can also resist the opinions of experts and this can be a challenge for Upholder and Obliger partners when making health, financial and other decisions for the family. As their partner, it is important to know that a questioner will not meet an expectation based on it being the rule or that someone said so, so partners need to go on the questioning journey with them but perhaps by putting in gentle boundaries such as deadlines or a specific amount of research and exploration to avoid analysis paralysis for the Questioner.

Being in a relationship with an Obliger

Obligers can be really great partners because they are really motivated by keeping their partner happy and meeting their expectations. But Obligers can be taken advantage of and neglect their own needs sometimes in their efforts to meet the needs of everyone else. So as the partner of the Obliger, it is important to not take advantage of this and perhaps also help the Obliger set boundaries so that they don’t reach burn out or resentment. The partner may also need to help the Obliger with accountability and create an ‘external expectation’ so that the Obliger is more likely to meet expectations they set for themselves such as for health, financial and work goals.

Being in a relationship with a Rebel

It is really important for the partner of a Rebel to know that they are a Rebel. If this isn’t known and acknowledged, the Rebel’s resistance to meet expectations can be taken personally and be quite hurtful. The more the Rebel is asked, the more they will resist. But a big motivator for the Rebel can be love. They will be happy to do things if it is for love or their partner’s will feel loved by their actions. This is an important reframe for Rebels.

Rebels may refuse to commit to plans but they are also unlikely to create their agenda with things. So as long as it is presented to them in a way that together you are flowing from one activity to another and the Rebel is feeling like they are making their own choices and being spontaneous, the partner can have the plan for the day. Rebels need to be invited with statement like, “I was thinking of doing…. if you would like to join for any of it.”

You can do a questionnaire to work out your tendency at Gretchen Rubin’s website

It’s just another way to be Better Together.


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