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Motivation

How You and Your Partner Can Help Each Other Achieve Goals

A meta-analysis finds close relationships are important in goal pursuit.

Key points

  • In romantic relationships, two types of support—emotional and practical—are essential for goal progress.
  • Partners can show emotional support by being available for each other and by providing encouragement, understanding, and reassurance.
  • Partners can provide practical support by giving information, advice, or tangible assistance (e.g., help with errands and chores).
StockSnap/Pixabay
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

Social support is associated with positive physical health and mental health outcomes. But how important is support to goal-related outcomes (e.g., goal-setting or goal progress)?

Quite important, according to a meta-analysis to be published in European Journal of Social Psychology, which examined data from over 10,000 participants in romantic relationships. The study, by Vowels and Carnelley, is described below.

Investigating romantic partner support and goal-related outcomes

Sample and method

The final sample consisted of 36 studies (195 effect sizes) and 10,130 participants.

Predictor variables included measures categorized as responsiveness, practical support, and negative support. Here are some brief definitions.

  • Responsiveness: Being available, providing encouragement, and being responsive to the partner’s needs.
  • Practical support: Providing tangible and instrumental support (e.g., advice, information, assistance with chores or errands, caring for a sick partner) or directive support (e.g., reminders).
  • Negative support: Unhelpful behaviors such as intrusions, interference, or coercive and controlling support.

Outcome variables included measures related to working toward a goal—e.g., acing a test, losing weight, getting a high-paying job. These variables were divided into the three categories of goal commitment, goal progress, and self-efficacy.

  • Goal commitment: Commitment, effort, or motivation toward an objective.
  • Goal progress: Moving toward a goal.
  • Self-efficacy: Feeling competent and believing in one’s ability to overcome obstacles, achieve goals, and succeed.

Findings

The results showed romantic partner support is “moderately associated with goal outcomes.”

Both practical support and emotional support (i.e. responsiveness) were “positively associated with goal outcomes and did not differ significantly, whereas negative support was negatively associated with goal outcomes,” though it had a “weaker overall effect.”

Furthermore, “responsiveness predicted progress, commitment, and self-efficacy equally,” whereas practical support “similarly predicted progress and commitment, but the association was significantly smaller for self-efficacy.”

Negative, practical, and emotional support

The effect size, the authors note, was r = 0.25, which means the “association between partner support and goal outcomes...was similar in size to having a strong intention to achieve a goal.” It should be noted that “intentions are one of the largest predictors of behaviors.”

Even though practical support (e.g., helping with the chores, running errands, caring for an ailing spouse) is sometimes seen as less important than emotional support (i.e. responsiveness, showing understanding, providing encouragement and reassurance), the present review concluded that the two types of support were associated with similar effect sizes.

Nevertheless, the results also showed that practical support had the potential to negatively affect a romantic partner’s sense of self-efficacy and make them doubt their ability to perform the behaviors needed to achieve goals on their own.

This is more likely if practical support is experienced as coercive and controlling, which may send the message that, one, the “supporter” does not respect their partner’s autonomy (i.e. the freedom to direct their own life) and, two, doubts their competence.

So, if practical support is experienced as negative support, it can undermine self-confidence and a sense of self-efficacy, giving rise to self-doubt, hostility, and resentment.

The findings also showed negative support had a negative effect on goal outcomes, particularly on goal commitment. Why?

Perhaps negative support (e.g., intrusions, interference)—which is more likely to be experienced with practical than emotional support—signals goal conflict and sends the message that one’s romantic partner does not want them to achieve the goal.

Goal conflict tends to occur more frequently when a goal involves one spouse than the couple (e.g., a career goal vs. a child-rearing goal).

Lastly, analysis of data showed older (compared to younger) individuals benefited less from romantic partner support. Why? Maybe because people make greater goal progress in early adulthood than when older, which means partner support plays a bigger role in the initial stages of the relationship.

andrey_braynsk/Pixabay
Source: andrey_braynsk/Pixabay

How you and your partner can help each other achieve goals

Regardless of the nature of one’s plans and aspirations (e.g., educational, career, health, or lifestyle goals), emotional and practical support in a romantic relationship have a major influence on setting, committing to, pursuing, and achieving goals.

So let me end with suggestions about how to create a supportive intimate relationship that can be the optimal environment for growth and success:

  1. Increase awareness of each other’s goals and any changes to these goals, over time.
  2. Provide effective emotional support by trying to be available, understanding, encouraging, and reassuring.
  3. Provide effective practical support, which, depending on the situation, may include giving useful information or advice, assisting with the chores and errands, etc.
  4. Avoid providing negative support (i.e. being pushy, intrusive, interfering, controlling, or coercive). In other words, when helping, remember to respect your romantic partner’s autonomy, ability to make decisions, and freedom to direct his or her own life.
  5. If you must choose, offer emotional support instead of instrumental support because the former has the benefit of boosting self-confidence, increasing a sense of self-efficacy, and promoting feelings of competence.
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