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Frank Muller P.E., Esq.

Richard A. Coughlin P.E., MBA


All relationships, whether "one on one" as in the case of marriage or co-habitation or "multi -personal" where several individuals combine their talents and resources to accomplish a common goal and at the same time realize personal gain, are entered into with certain expectations that are sure to influence the behavior of the participants in a positive or negative way.

For instance, fifty years ago, most marriages were entered into with the expectation that they would last a lifetime and the vow of "for better or worse, until death do us part" was a commitment that was usually binding. This expectation was further reinforced by a society that often ostracized divorced partners and children of divorced parents were often stigmatized.

Advocates of terminating unhappy relationships will argue that the unrealistic expectation that a marriage would survive under any circumstances often resulted in situations where the marriage existed in name only and the atmosphere created by an unhappy relationship was far more damaging to the children involved than any separation. Those who support the argument of a lifetime commitment will argue that living in a home with their married parents offers a security that allows children to deal with crisis, both as children and as adults.

In any event, the expectations of fifty tears ago have changed significantly. While it is true that most people look at marriage as a long-term if not a lifetime relationship and few expect it to end in divorce or separation at the time of marriage, ( in spite of the fact that fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce, and in some occupations the rate is even higher) most are aware that, if all else fails, they can terminate the relationship without suffering the societal consequences of the fifties and earlier and very often single parents can offer the same security as that of a nuclear family.

What happened in the last fifty years to change things? This significant change in social norm can be attributed to a number of factors, some of which are; the so-called sexual revolution, the advancement of women in the workplace and government, (and resultant increase in financial independence), changes in the laws and institutional policies etc.. But if one were to look for a common denominator in these changes in behavior, the catalyst would probably be changes in attitude based on the expected consequences of changed behavior.

A Case Study

To illustrate this argument, let us consider the following theoreticals;

Mr. Doe, Father of Jane, had an unsuccessful marriage. His wife, though beautiful, was a woman of loose morals who abandoned her husband and Jane several years ago. As Jane approached her late teens it was obvious that she was to have her Mother's beauty and her Father, who still suffered from the abandonment of years ago was concerned and fully expected that Jane would turn out to be just like her Mother.

Theory One (exhibit one) demonstrates the probable relationship that will exist between Jane and her Father as a result of his expectations of her future negative behavior.

Father's Expectation: Jane will be just like her Mother

Father's Behavior: Treats Jane as he did her Mother (limits her social activities, questions and accuses, follows her and challenges her friends)

Jane's Perception: My Father is convinced that I will be just like my Mother

Jane's Expectation: I cannot change my Father's mind , so I might as well be like my Mother

Jane's Behavior: Jane acts like her Mother (stays out late, bad companions, indulges rebels etc.)

Father's Perception: I was right. Jane will be just like her Mother

This final phase of the cycle is referred to as "Reinforcement" in that Jane's behavior justifies her Father's expectations

And so the cycle continues and the relationship deteriorates until one party or the other severs the relationship by physical or mental abandonment.

Does it have to be this way? Not necessarily. Let us look at another scenario. In this instance, Jane's Father is able to deal with his grief and concerns, (through counseling or other means) and is convinced that Jane need not be like her Mother. In this instance we might expect the following to happen:

Father's Expectation: Jane doesn't have to be just like her Mother

Father's Behavior: Treats Jane differently than he did her Mother (encourages social activities, displays trust, supports positive relationships, establishes two-way communication)

Jane's Perception: My Father is convinced that I won't be just like my Mother

Jane's Expectation: I don't have to be like my Mother

Jane's Behavior: Jane does not act like her Mother (keeps reasonable hours, establishes positive relationships, confides in Father etc.)

Father's Perception: I was right. Jane does not have to be like her Mother

This phase of the cycle is also referred to as "Reinforcement" as, once again Jane's behavior serves to justify her Father's expectations

In both instances, observed behavior serves to reinforce the expectations of the parties in the relationship and encourage positive or negative behavior. If, however the expectations are not met, changes in behavior will usually take place. For example, in Theory One, if Jane did not accept her Father's expectation that she would be like her Mother, and behaved in a positive manner, her Father might ultimately change his thinking, additionally, in Theory Two, inappropriate behavior on the part of Jane will bring about a deteriation of Trust and Communication and ultimately cause Father to revert to the expectations of Theory One.

What suppositions can we draw from this exercise?

There are a number of inferences that one might take from this exercise:

1. The importance of defining and understanding the expectations of the parties to a relationship.

In a legal relationship, expectations are defined in the documents that establish the relationship (The Contract), where each Party agrees to provide something of value to the relationship and at the same time take away something of equal or greater value. In an Owner/Designer/Contractor

relationship, the Owner provides Capital and is rewarded with new or modified facilities, the

Designer provides and often oversees the Design and is paid for same by the Owner and the Contractors provide labor and materials and establish the price for their services in the contract documents.

If all expectations are met, the project will go well and the relationship will be successful. The problems arise, however, when the contact documents are ambiguous or misinterpreted by one or more of the parties. (In fairness to the contract drafter, as astute as he/she may be, most contracts include such terms as "prompt", "reasonable", "quality", "of the essence" and "sufficient", all of which are subject to interpretation.) Therefore it is essential that the parties to the Contract spend some time together each defining their expectations of the others and the others agreeing to these definitions.

2. The importance of a fair and balanced relationship.

In order for a relationship to work, each of the parties must feel that the rewards for their efforts are consistent with their contribution. In Theory One, if Jane made a genuine effort to behave properly, but her Father was unwilling to recognize this effort, the relationship would fail. This is true of legal relationships. They need not be 50-50, but they must be perceived as fair. For example, in construction contracts, if an Owner agrees to pay for services rendered in 30 days, but consistently fails to do so, the other parties to the contract will soon fail to live up to their obligations.

3. The need to benchmark and monitor the expectations.

A former New York Mayor was known for his habit of asking the public "How am I doing?" and it was seen by his constituency as a genuine attempt to get feedback on his performance and worked well until such time as he stopped listening.

This process is essential to any long-term relationship. It is not enough to agree upon expectations, the parties must monitor how well they are being met and whether or not they need to be modified. Failure to do so will result in lack of trust in the process.

4. Relationships need reinforcement

Very often, parties in a relationship look for more than the obvious rewards of participation. Countless employee surveys indicate that, while proper compensation is necessary to effective production, recognition is the driving influence in getting employees to take "that extra step".

This can be said of interpersonal relationships. I suspect that more two person relationships are dissolved with a root cause of lack of appreciation than other reasons.

Relationships stay strong when the parties appreciate and trust each other.

5. Positive Expectations encourage Positive Results

The Theory of Expectations is often referred to as the "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" because of example after example of situations where people succeed against all odds because they had faith in themselves and full expected to succeed. The other side of the coin are examples of people with an overabundance of talent who failed because they fully expected to do so. Positive thinking is the fuel that drives the engine of success.


If the parties are committed and agree to defining and meeting the expectations of each other, the relationship will be successful. Success is measured by achieving defined goals and meeting expectations to the satisfaction of all. If the project is successful, then each of the parties (stakeholders) will achieve the benefits. It is only the misapplication or lack of maintenance of the process that leads to failure.

If readers of this article are interested in more detail, you can contact the Authors.

The Metro Group can be reached through the webpage  

The article is copyright 1998, all rights reserved, by the authors.

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Copyright 1998 Stephen R. Marsh
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