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When Differences Can Make Your Relationship Stronger

Having a different outlook from your partner can be a good thing. Here's why.

About a year ago, I made a very silly, and costly, mistake.

I forgot my backpack in a cab.

My partner James and I were on our way home from the airport. It was late, we were both tired, and I didn’t even realize what I had done until I went to check my email and didn’t have my laptop.

“Hmmm”, I said, to no one in particular. “My backpack isn’t here. I think I might have left it in the cab.”

James, who is characteristically calm and collected, proceeded to completely lose his cool. “Oh no! Oh NO!! This is awful. This is so bad! What can we do? Your passport was in there! Your laptop!! Can we call the cab company? This is terrible!”

“Yes,” I mused. “I probably should have checked for it before getting out of the cab. Perhaps there is a lost and found.”

After about an hour of searching, we had exhausted all avenues of trying to retrieve the bag. It slowly dawned on me that I was never getting my stuff back.

“I can’t believe this”, I groaned, slumped into the couch with my head in my hands. “It’s gone. My laptop. My passport. I think my lab keys were in there! This is awful.”

My partner, who was more or less over the crisis at this point, tried his best to be responsive to my sudden state of dejection and misery. But he couldn’t help but ask, “Uh, Sam - didn’t we know this an hour ago?”

* * *

What can explain the drastically different reactions that James and I had to this same shared experience? The answer is that we have different goal strategies, or what researchers refer to as “regulatory focus”1,2 In other words, even when we have the same goals, we frame those goals in very different ways.

James is a relatively prevention-focused individual. Prevention-focused individuals tend to focus on losses and non-losses, and they aim for states of security. Individuals with a prevention focus are most upset when things get worse than they currently are, and they’re quite happy when everything remains relatively stable and unchanged.

I, on the other hand, am a strongly promotion-focused individual. I’m focused on gains and non-gains, and I aim for states of improvement. I’m happiest when I’m moving forward, and unhappy when I feel like things are stagnated and cannot move forward.

To James, the worst had already happened at the moment when we realized the backpack was missing. He became upset because a major loss had occurred. At that point, getting the backpack back would have been a lucky bonus, because his focus is on not losing things in the first place. I, on the other hand, wasn’t particularly miffed by the loss of the backpack. I was focused on gaining it back. But, I quickly became inconsolable when I realized that the backpack could not be retrieved. In other words, although I wasn’t very upset by the loss (of the bag), I was deeply upset by the non-gain (of that same bag).

You might expect this difference between my partner and me to cause problems for our relationship. Don’t birds of a feather flock together? But in fact, two studies recently conducted by Vanessa Bohns and colleagues3 suggest that goal pursuit might be one area in which differences between romantic partners can nicely complement one another. Specifically, they hypothesized that as long as both partners are aiming for the same general result, it might be beneficial to have different strategies for achieving that result.

In their first study, couple members (independently) completed a questionnaire measuring regulatory focus. Promotion focus was measured with questions like, “How often have you accomplished things that got you “psyched” to work even harder?”, and prevention focus was measured with questions like, “How often did you obey rules and regulations that were established by your parents?”. The couples also reported on how similar their goals were, with items like, “I feel like my partner and I are ‘on the same page’ in terms of the goals we pursue together”, and “when it comes to pursuing goals as a couple, I feel like my partner and I are ‘of one mind’”. The researchers found that when couples didn’t have congruent goals, it didn’t much matter whether they were promotion- or prevention-focused. However, when couples did have congruent goals, couples who also had complementary goal strategies actually reported the highest relationship quality! In other words, as long as the couple was on the same page about what goals they wanted to pursue, the couple was happiest when one member of the couple was more promotion-focused, and the other member of the couple was more prevention-focused.

Study 2 used a similar design. Couples completed questionnaires measuring their promotion versus prevention focus. Then, the researchers measured the couples’ self-other overlap. When people have high self-other overlap with their partners, it means that they feel strongly connected with their partners, as though they and their partners are a team or a unit. In contrast, people with low self-overlap tend to see their partners as being very separate or disconnected from themselves, as though they and their partners are “leading separate lives”. The researchers found that when couples had low self-other overlap, it didn’t much matter how promotion- or prevention-focused they were, just like the couples with incongruent goals in Study 1. But when couples had high self-other overlap, then those with complementary goal strategies reported being happier with their relationships. Couples had the highest relationship quality when they had high self-other overlap, and when one member of the couple was promotion-focused while the other was prevention-focused.

The take-home message here is that prevention-focused and promotion-focused individuals are often aiming for the same basic outcome. They’re just framing that goal in different ways. These studies show that, as long as the couple is indeed operating as a team, it’s helpful for the partners to have these different goal strategies. This is likely because implementing different goal strategies can help couples to “cover all the bases” and achieve a better end result. For example, when planning a vacation together, a promotion-focused partner might help by finding a romantic destination, planning exciting excursions, and taking note of hotel perks and upgrades. Meanwhile, the prevention-focused partner might help by ensuring that vaccinations and travel documents are up to date, keeping valuables safe, keeping the trip affordable, and not booking the trip in the middle of a monsoon season. All of these considerations are important for achieving the broader end goal of having a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Overall, this research is a great example of how differences between romantic partners can be a good thing. One person’s strengths can compensate for the other’s weaknesses, to the benefit of both partners.

These days, James always checks for our belongings when we take cab rides together.

Follow Samantha on Twitter or visit her website.

This article was originally written for Science of Relationships: a website about the psychology of relationships that is written by active researchers and professors in the field.

1. Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.

2. Higgins, E. T., Friedman, R. S., Harlow, R. E., Idson, L. C., Ayduk, O. N., & Taylor, A. (2001). Achievement orientations from subjective histories of success: Promotion pride versus prevention pride. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 2-23.

3. Bohns, V. K., Lucas, G. M., Molden, D. C., Finkel, E. J., Coolsen, M. K., Kumashiro, M., Rusbult, C. E., & Higgins, E. T. (2013). Opposites fit: Regulatory focus complementarity and relationship well-being. Social Cognition, 31, 1-14.