Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why We Don't Always Put Our Relationships First

New research highlights the challenge of trying to do it all.

A quick walk through the checkout line at most supermarkets takes you past an array of magazines that the store hopes you will grab on your way out. The headlines on those magazine covers scream out solutions to the problems people struggle with every day—and to judge from their content, the biggest problems may be weight loss, sex, and relationships.

Why are relationships such a source of anxiety? 

A paper by Laura VanderDrift and Christopher Agnew in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that we pit our personal goals against our relationship goals in ways that can hurt our relationships.

The broad idea is related to research that I did several years ago with Miguel Brendl and Claude Messner. We found that when people were strongly motivated to pursue a goal, it made them appreciate (or value) goal-related objects more and devalue non-goal-related objects.

Similarly, these researchers suggest that when people are highly motivated to pursue a personal goal, they devalue their relationship. In their studies, they asked people either to consider a personal goal relevant to them (Should I learn to play the saxophone or not?) or to actually think about the steps required to carry out that goal (What are five steps I would need to take to learn to play the saxophone?). Previous research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues suggests that thinking about the steps required to carry out a goal increases the strength of that goal more than just thinking about the goal in general.

Across five studies in the new paper, participants were much less willing to engage in behaviors that would have a positive impact on their relationship if they had an active personal goal than if they did not. 

In one study, participants who were in a relationship were less willing to forgive their partner for a transgression when they had an active personal goal than when they did not. This was particularly true for transgressions that would get in the way of their personal goal. 

In another study, participants were given the opportunity to get information on improving their relationship or on improving their ability to achieve personal goals. People who had an active personal goal were much less interested in getting information about how to improve their relationship than those who did not. However, the more strongly people felt that their romantic partner helps them to achieve personal goals, the more interested they were in information that would help them improve their relationship. So even their interest in relationship information was related to whether it would help them achieve their personal goal.

A final study reversed this effect. In it, some participants were first induced to have a strong relationship goal by listing steps they would take to improve their relationship. This group was subsequently much less interested in getting information to improve personal goals than a group that did not formulate steps toward an active relationship goal. 

This set of findings reflects an important aspect of our motivational system. We are very efficient at achieving the goals that our motivational system engages. As a result, we focus on information that is useful for achieving our goals and devalue information that isn't. So when we have an important personal goal, our relationships take a back seat. When we have an important relationship goal, our personal goals take a back seat.

If you find yourself in the supermarket checkout aisle, and you resonate to the headlines about relationship problems, it might be time to think about specific steps you could take to improve your relationship as a way of engaging that goal.


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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.


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