Have you ever been told by a counselor, a friend, or a nosy aunt that you need to set goals for your relationship — that you need to communicate better, liven up your sex life, and earn each other’s trust, etc. You, like most people, have probably come to believe that relationships need goals, that only by delineating specific goals can you work to achieve them, and that once you’ve achieved them, happiness will abound.
Similarly, most of us believe that “marriage is a lot of work.” It’s a sentiment that applies to all long-term relationships—legally married or not. And "work," in the way we understand it, requires goals. To work systematically toward something, you need to know what that something is. If you don’t have a desired outcome—a goal—in mind, then there’s no motivation to do the work in the first place. Why toil away at something hard unless we can envision the reward?
Unfortunately, in reality, setting goals for relationships creates more problems than it solves. Here are three reasons why:
1. Too many goals!
There are an absolute plethora of goals most of us think we should be working toward in a romantic relationship. There’s good communication, trust, passion, and commitment. Don’t forget friendship, fairness, and honesty. We should also be supportive of one another, responsible, compassionate, and vulnerable. I could go on, but you get the point.
How could anyone actually achieve all these goals? Wouldn’t the pursuit of all of them at once pull you in a million different directions?
True, we don’t usually articulate every one of these goals by name, but once they’re brought to our attention, most everyone agrees that they are all important and that we should strive to achieve them all. So how does one achieve so many different, and occasionally opposite, goals at once? The answer: They don’t. That’s because we have far too many relationship goals for anybody to actually achieve.
When a person is confronted with a large number of goals that all sound equally important, they will become overwhelmed—either exhausted trying to run in all directions or paralyzed by not knowing which is the right way to run. This is often called "analysis paralysis," but I call it goal fatigue, and it’s not a positive experience to associate with your relationship.
2. Poorly defined goals.
The goals we’ve listed above—good communication, trust, passion, etc.—all sound great on paper. But what do they actually mean? For example, how do you define “trust” in your relationship? Does it mean that you’re able to trust your partner implicitly? Does it mean you trust them implicitly on some things but not others? Does it mean your partner should be able to prove they’re telling the truth at all times? And by "trust" do you really mean, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “trust but verify”?
The other relationship goals we listed fall apart as soon as you dig into them as well, because they’re poorly, and sometimes contradictorily, defined. For example, “good communication” could mean being extremely truthful but it could also mean being extremely kind. During a fight, being truthful and being kind are usually opposites. So how do you achieve the goal of “good communication” during a fight? Therein lies the problem. “Good communication” is not a goal to be achieved but a system of polarities to manage…a seesaw to keep in balance.
3. Relationship goals are not achievable.
To call something a goal, it must be objectively achievable. There has to be a moment when you receive the reward for which you worked. Let’s relate it to payment for work: When you work at a job, you are guaranteed a quantifiable amount of money in exchange for work. This reward comes to you on a predictable schedule. This exchange of work for reward is so clear it can be summarized in one line of writing in an employment agreement.
Now, apply that to relationship goals. What’s the specific amount of friendship you’re getting from your partner each week? On what date will passion be achieved? When exactly is your kindness arriving in the mail? You see the problem?
Relationship goals are not achievable because the type of reward they generate is un-quantifiable, un-schedulable, and unmeasurable. To call something a goal, it must have a demonstrable endpoint after which the goal has been achieved. But relationships are ongoing, unfolding processes that never end (unless the relationship ends).
So, ditch the idea that someday you can achieve all the relationship goals you’ve set for yourself and your partner. Instead, embrace the effortful see-saw of human interaction—the balanced process that hopefully never ends.