People seek out romantic relationships for different reasons. In doing so, they often make decisions and trade-offs about what they want in a partner. They may also have different stories about love and relationships that are guiding their choices too. As a result, who we find attractive and compatible can differ as well.
Within all those choices and differences then, how do we know who to pick for a successful and mutually-satisfying relationship? One way to find such compatibility and cooperation is to pick someone looking for the same things out of a relationship you want too. In other words, someone who has the same relationship goals.
Fortunately, those goals tend to fall into a few basic types—and align with a couple of basic categories of human needs. For more specifics, let's look at the research itself.
Goals and Needs in Romantic Relationships
A model of relationship goals in marriage was suggested in a theoretical article by Finkel, Cheung, Emery, Carswell, and Larson (2015). In that article, the authors categorized three types of goals, which differed based on the types of needs that the relationship helped partners meet. Specifically, those relationship types were:
- Institutional — A relationship focused on meeting physical needs, such as food and shelter—and helps to provide physical, emotional, and economic safety as well. Essentially, the goal of this type of relationship is to meet basic needs of both individuals (and perhaps a larger family). This may be especially appealing when times are difficult and partners/families need to be self-sufficient.
- Companionate — A relationship that focuses more on love and connection. Such a relationship has the goal of providing a sense of belonging, mutual concern, respect, and sexual intimacy. This type of relationship may be desired to meet social and emotional needs, particularly when basic physical and safety needs are already met.
- Self-Expressive — A relationship focused on self-expression and personal growth. Essentially, this is about partners helping each other become self-actualized, exploring individual hopes and dreams. This type of relationship too may be most appealing when lower-order needs have already been met.
Finkel and associates (2015) then go on to suggest that there may be a mismatch in modern relationships between what people desire to get out of their relationship and what they intend to invest into it. To support that claim, they cite earlier research by Trail and Karney (2012), which generally shows individuals prioritizing Self-Expressive relationship aspects (such as understanding each other's hopes and dreams, and effective communication) over more Institutional relationship concerns (steady jobs, savings, similar values/ethnicity).
In the modern world, however, there is often less time and ability to work on those loftier relationship goals, with people being pulled in multiple directions by other commitments. Beyond that, many individuals may have a more difficult time meeting basic needs too, leaving even less time and energy to pursue such self-expression.
Thus, according to Finkel and associates (2015), modern relationships may often "suffocate" by trying to climb to the peak of self-expressiveness, while not being provided with enough "oxygen" through time and effort together as partners to do so. In other words, as a result of people holding Self-Expressive relationship aspirations, they may become less satisfied with their relationships, even though their relationships are still doing quite well satisfying more Institutional and Companionate needs.
This general three-goal pattern is supported by trends in the research exploring dating goals as well. Specifically, goals of increasing status, sharing intimacy, and forming an identity are often stated as reasons for dating (Zimmer-Gembeck, Hughes, Kelly, & Connolly, 2012). These goals translate into behavioral differences too, with those dating for Intimacy reporting their partners as being warmer and less rejecting, while Identity daters characterized their partners as supporting their autonomy and being less coercive (Zimmer-Gembeck, Arnhold, & Connolly, 2014).
Nevertheless, the research also indicates that individuals who hold Intimacy goals are often most satisfied with their relationships. Thus, as suggested by the model proposed by Finkel (2015) above, the Companionate/Intimacy goal may be a more balanced and satisfying expectation for relationships and dating as well.
Choosing Your Dating and Relationship Goal
Given the research above, having a goal can help guide you to a more satisfying love life. In order to be successful, however, that goal has to strike a balance between what you want and need, what you are willing to trade off to get it, and what you are willing to invest into the relationship to reach that goal too. After all, relationships at their core are social exchanges that can lead to mutual-satisfaction. Therefore, as you pick a goal, it can help to consider the following in more detail.
- What are your wants and needs? If your primary focus is on basic physical and economic needs, and you find yourself attracted to a partner who is stable, dependable and not chaotic, then you might consider a more Institutional type of relationship. If you are more concerned with connection and intimacy, and enjoy a warm and accepting partner, then you might want to prioritize a Companionate relationship goal. Finally, if you are primarily concerned with your self-development and identity, and would like a partner who is supportive of your autonomy, then a more Self-Expressive goal might serve you best.
- What are you willing to trade off? As discussed elsewhere, picking a mate often involves a trade-off between desired characteristics. For example, individuals with a more Institutional relationship goal might preference status/resources, dependability, interest in raising a family, and a similar background (religion, values, ethnicity, etc). On the other end of the spectrum, those with Self-Expressive relationship goals might preference love, good looks, education, and being sociable with people in general. Those who want a bit of each in the middle—and would be happy with moderate amounts of the above traits—would be best served with a more Companionate goal.
- How much will you invest to get it? As the research above suggests, higher goals require more investment. Particularly, they require both partners to have the time, ability, and motivation to meet lower-order needs and then continue to work beyond them. Therefore, if you barely have enough time to work to pay the bills and connect with a partner, then focusing on an Institutional/Companionate goal may be more reasonable and satisfying. Furthermore, a Self-Expressive goal also requires learning to trust your partner more and committing more to the relationship. Therefore, if you have a harder time trusting others, or you have a lot of other competing work and social commitments, then focusing on an Institutional/Companionate goal might be more satisfying and successful there too.
Without taking the above into consideration, people often start out with relatively ambitious goals for relationships, usually influenced by unrealistic expectations set by modern media. In reality, although not impossible, it can be very difficult for individuals to find partners who challenge and complete them—and it takes a lot of work, trust, and commitment from both of them to make such a relationship successful. Fortunately though, the majority of individuals eventually find that a warm and caring partner, who provides intimacy and helps pay the bills, can be very satisfying too. Ultimately then, no goal is really better or worse and each leads to their own kind of satisfaction. So, as long as you balance your expectations with your ability to trust, commit, and invest, your relationship goal will help lead you to success.
© 2019 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Finkel, E. J., Cheung, E. O., Emery, L. F., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2015). The suffocation model: Why marriage in america is becoming an all-or-nothing institution. Psychological Science, 24, 238-244.
Trail, T. E., & Karney, B. R. (2012). What's (not) wrong with low-income marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 413-427.
Zimmer-Gembeck, M., J., Arnold, V., & Connolly, J. (2014). Intercorrelations of intimacy and identity dating goals with relationship behaviors and satisfaction among young heterosexual couples. Social Sciences, 3, 44-59.
Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Hughes, N., Kelly, M., & Connolly, J. (2012). Intimacy, identity and status: Measuring dating goals in late adolescence and emerging adulthood. Motivation and Emotion, 36, 311–322.