Most advice on pursuing goals focuses on what you can do to achieve your own aims. But how can you help those you love to achieve their goals? Relationship partners play an important role in helping or hindering our progress toward our goals.1
Here are seven science-backed tips for helping your partner:
1. Encourage your partner.
2. Don’t let your partner become paralyzed by potential obstacles, and encourage them to focus on the positive aspects of achieving their goals.3
But this doesn’t mean blindly ignoring those obstacles: It’s important to consider obstacles and plan for how to overcome them.4
3. Help your partner develop strategies that will aid in pursuing their goals.
If their goal is to exercise more, help them to come up with a specific plan and focus on goals that are realistic and attainable.3 It’s important that these plans are specific (e.g., jog for 15 minutes on the treadmill before work), rather than general (e.g., exercise 3 times a week).
4. Help your partner avoid other activities that will use up their willpower.
According to the ego depletion theory of willpower, exerting self-control on one activity uses up your resources, making it more difficult to muster the will for another difficult task.5 For example, if you’re buckling down for hours cramming for an exam, then venture into the kitchen for a late-night snack, it will be especially difficult to resist choosing the chocolate cake over the apple because you've depleted your willpower.
So if you want to help your partner have the motivation to pursue a goal, try to help them to avoid other, less important, activities that require effort and willpower. For example, if your partner is trying to quit smoking, don't ask them to go to a work party where they'll have to socialize with people they dislike.
Your actual interactions with your partner can also be more or less draining—effortful social interactions can deplete your willpower.6 For example, in a study where people played charades with a partner, working with a guesser with whom they were well-synchronized actually helped them persist longer at an unrelated physical task.7
5. Don’t be controlling.
Trying to control your partner’s actions can backfire. When people feel as though their freedom to do what they want is being threatened, they’ll cling to that threatened freedom more—like a child who desperately wants to play with a specific toy simply because it’s forbidden.8 When you try to control your partner, you’re restricting their freedom.
For example, a wife who pushes unwanted healthy dinners on her husband may inadvertently make him even more likely to grab fast food at work. This process also operates on the unconscious level. In two experiments, researchers found that simply reminding people of a partner who tries to control them caused them to behave in ways that directly opposed that person’s desires.9
6. Don’t interfere unnecessarily.10
Sometimes your partner may not want or need your help. Providing help that isn’t needed or wanted can be viewed as threatening to the self and may make people feel that their partner doesn’t have faith in them11 or can make them feel indebted to the giver.12
7. Be subtle.
People sometimes respond negatively to obvious efforts to help, so providing help in a way that is indirect and less noticeable can be effective. When the recipient doesn’t realize they’ve been helped, it avoids the potential negative consequences of feeling controlled, indebted, or threatened.
In one study, law students studying for the bar examination felt more anxious on days on which they believed their romantic partners had provided emotional support and less anxious on days when they believed the partners had not provided any emotional support, but their romantic partners claimed that they had.13
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College. Follow her on Twitter.
1 Fitzsimons, G. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Interpersonal influences on self regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 101-105.
2 Brunstein, J.C., Dangelmayer, G., & Schultheiss, O.C. (1996). Personal goals and social support in close relationships: Effects on relationship mood and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1006–1019.
3 Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2014). A new look at social support: A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/1088868314544222. Published online before print August 14, 2014,http://psr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/08/15/1088868314544222
4 Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Penguin Group.
5 Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavasky, E., Muraven, M., Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
6 Finkel, E.J., Campbell, W.K., Brunell, A.B., Dalton, A.N., Chartrand, T.L., & Scarbeck, S.J. (2006). High-maintenance interaction: Inefficient social coordination impairs self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 456–475
7 Knowles, M.L., Finkel, E.J., & Williams, K. (2007). Bolstering self regulation
through social lubrication. Unpublished manuscript, Northwestern University, as cited in Fitzsimons, G. M., & Finkel, E. J. (2010). Interpersonal influences on self regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 101-105.
8 Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. Academic Press.
9 Chartrand, T.L., Dalton, A., & Fitzsimons, G.J. (2007). Relationship reactance: When priming significant others triggers opposing goals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 719–726.
10 Coyne, J. C., Wortman, C. B., & Lehman, D. R. (1988). The other side of support: Emotional overinvolvement and miscarried helping. In B. H. Gottlieb (Ed.), Marshaling social support: Formats, processes, and effects(pp. 305–330). Newbury Park, CA: Sage
11 Burke, C. T., & Goren, J. (in press). Self-evaluative consequences of social support receipt: The role of context self-relevance. Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1111/pere.12039. Available online before printhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pere.12039/abstrac
12 Gleason, M. E. J., Iida, M., Bolger, N., & Shrout, P. E. (2003). Daily supportive equity in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1036-1045. doi: 10.1177/0146167203253473