How you approach exciting goals and how you avoid negative outcomes, influences your self-image, and your perception of your partner and your relationship.
It can be like gliding gracefully along the water in a small canoe, rowing in tandem, as you smile at the scenery and each other. Or it can be a hair-raising, nausea-inducing, choppy journey where you’re fed up of the scenery and the sight of each other.
When couples approach goals that will lead to positive outcomes – such as raising confident children or saving £X each month – and when you both approach those goals with the same strategy, you create synergy. This has a positive effect on you individually and on your relationship because (a) you’re pursuing goals that create excitement as they’re focused on a positive end result and (b) you’re working together as a team.
You feel able to communicate about your challenges more comfortably with your teammate and that such a conversation will be well-received as you both want to achieve the same end goal. You know a discussion of your personal struggles will more likely lead to your partner actively listening to you and helping you with their suggestions or actions.
You feel more resilient and optimistic day-to-day because you have access to a built-in support system that you can rely on when the going gets tough. That built-in support system helps you to maintain positive emotions. Positive emotions before and after a challenge are linked to higher resilience levels . So that built-in support system helps you to forge ahead with your goals even when they seem difficult or scary.
And when you approach goals in the same way, you naturally have way more energy. Firstly, that’s because you’re not draining energy on (too many) disagreements. Secondly, because you’re not having to expend effort on trying to pull your partner in your direction, because you’re both already approaching the same goals in the same way.
Even if one of you has a strength in a given area – let’s say managing finances – and the other doesn’t but you agree to let the one with the skills take the lead whilst the other follows, you’re still working as a team in the same direction. So you’re still able to match on how you approach goals. It’s okay if you have different skill sets, it can actually be very beneficial, as long as you play to your strengths and work as a team moving in the same direction.
Approach Goals and Avoidance Goals
In research, the term ‘approach goals’ has a slightly different meaning to how we ‘pursue goals’ as we were exploring above. ‘Approach goals’ and ‘avoidance goals’ are used to describe positive outcomes that we aim to achieve and negative outcomes that we aim to avoid, respectively. So for example, in the context of romantic relationships, an approach goal might be increasing daily emotional intimacy; an avoidance goal might be avoiding conflict.
In a study of over 450 couples, how two partners approach what they want to achieve and what they want to avoid has been found to converge in the long-term, that partners do influence each other’s approach goals and avoidance goals 10-12 months on . These effects were found regardless of gender, age, and length of the relationship.
Perhaps romantic partners start to match up on goals, for better or for worse, to overcome the internal tension of working towards a different goal from their team member and/or to prevent the outward conflict pulling in different directions can cause.
Maybe we are naturally inclined towards maintaining a relationship homeostasis or perhaps we simply become a product of our environment. I imagine it’s both, but much more so to maintain relationship stability.
Either way, even if you subconsciously adopt similar habits over time in an attempt to reduce relationship friction, matching on approach goals and avoidance goals isn’t always a good thing.
Just Any Old Matching Approach Won’t Do
On the one hand, both of you working towards positive outcomes (approach goals) creates a happier relationship where the individuals experience greater satisfaction.
For example, when couples focus on approach goals such as fun, growth and development, they have greater sexual desire for one another on a daily basis; such approach goals also buffer them from a decline in sexual desire over time when compared with individuals who focus less on fun, growth and development .
In turn, satisfaction in the bedroom makes people feel happy and satisfied with the relationship .
Even with that specific aside, the mere fact that your partner is highly focused on approach goals, goals that lead to positive outcomes, will make you more committed to and more satisfied with your relationship over time .
On the other hand, when couples pursue avoidance goals – working away from negative outcomes – they can experience greater dissatisfaction and disconnection. In one study, couples in favour of avoidance goals reported more relationship problems, poorer coping as a couple and less partner support .
Let’s use an example to see how this happens. We’ll assume for a moment that your avoidance goal is avoiding conflict. Perhaps your partner avoids conflict and so over time you too, in a bid to reduce their discomfort and your displeasure, begin to avoid conflict. What happens then?
Yep, suddenly you’re both glossing over the cracks. Heck, you’re not even noticing them because you’ve gotten so good at putting the blinkers on. Eventually you stop talking about anything important as it may cause conflict, instead you’re talking about the mundane.
Occasionally the important topic slips in, like your dissatisfaction about the dishes they never wash or the mess they never sort, and there erupts an argument.
You resign yourselves to going back to not discussing these things again for a while because it’s so stressful when you try to. So instead you adopt a routine that means increasing your burdens in order to minimise the distress, theirs and yours. Only thing is, your distress is still building, it’s just building under the surface. And now you don’t even feel as warm towards them, you don’t want to spend as much time having fun together, suddenly your avoidance goals have taken over your approach goals and you can see it.
The eye-contact is reduced, the physical touch has diminished, and you’re nearly always sat three metres apart in the living room. And how did you end up here, in this disconnected discontent? By focusing on avoidance goals to reduce immediate discomfort which in turn could now lead to a break up or divorce. But before you end up there, you can refocus on approach goals if you want to. It’s starts with a desire to stay together. Yours and theirs.
How To Work Out If Their Goal Is To Stay Or Walk Away
If you want to spend your life with your partner but you can’t tell if they are planning to stay or slowly trying to exit, here is how you can tell the difference.
The difference is in their actions. The ones who are secretly planning an exit will be systematically breaking the connection between you, over time. You will eventually notice it and when you try to discuss the noticeable disconnection and a desire to fix it and even solutions for fixing it, they will not cooperate. They will stonewall you, lie to you, angrily shout at you, and/or gaslight you, repeatedly. And they won’t properly commit to important changes for long, if at all.
For the avoidance-goals prone partner who wants to stay but just needs help dealing with relationship problems, they will heed your requests and wake up calls and they will begin taking positive steps towards saving the relationship. They may not move at the speed you want, but if they are continuously moving in the direction of effort and commitment and togetherness, then you have a way of getting back to the place you were once in, or better yet, a new and improved version of the relationship, the best you’ve ever had.
Create Approach Goals Out Of Avoidance Goals
When you both clearly want to save your relationship, you need to set some approach-goals. Going back to the Kuster et al. study (2017), the couples that pursued approach-goals, just as I said at the start of this article, reported being able to communicate more effectively about stress, cope better as a couple, and tended to perceive their partner as being more communicative and more supportive. Cue less stress, more resilience, more synergy! Ultimately, a happier, healthier relationship ensues.
So, if you have avoidance goals, simply work out what the opposite of the avoidance-goal is and make that your focus instead. Ask yourself, ‘If that’s what we don’t want, what is it that we do want?’
- ‘We want to avoid conflict’ (avoidance goal) could become ‘We want to communicate receptively and compassionately’ (approach goal).
- ‘We want to avoid money problems’ (avoidance goal) could become ‘We want to save £x each month (approach goal).
Always, always focus on your goals and desires rather than on your fears and dislikes. Always. Do this when you’re communicating with each other. Do this when you’re setting goals. Do this when you’re solving problems in your head.
Choose The Right Partner Early On
Now, if you’re in a new relationship or you’re currently dating different people as you search for ‘the one’, then you can save yourself a lot of wasted time, stress and heartache by choosing the right partner now.
If you have a tendency to pursue approach goals, then by choosing someone who also purses approach goals and tends to approach life’s problems and life goals in a similar way to you – similar mindset and approach – you’ll have a smoother journey ahead. One where you work through relationship problems compassionately and respectfully, one where you work towards having fun and creating new experiences, where you have the same idea about how to raise children if you want them, the same financial goals, and, and, and.
If one or both of you pursue avoidance goals, on the whole, then it’s worth working on that first. You might (each) work with a coach to see why you do that, and how you can change it to being more approach goals oriented, so that in addition to your own improved well-being, resilience and success, you have a better chance at having a happy, harmonious relationship.
If you’re in the early stages of your relationship or are still looking, this is the time where you can design your (romantic) life. Don’t compromise. Fantasise. Create a clear vision of what you want. And then go find it.
If you’re already in a relationship, steer it to where you want it to go. All it requires is mutual motivation to stay together and steps to change your problem-focused living into a solution-focused life.
1. Tugade, M. M. and Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). ‘Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2): 320–33.
2. Nikitin, J., Wünsche, J., Bühler, J. L., Weidmann, R., Burriss, R. P., Grob, A. (2020). Interdependence of Approach and Avoidance Goals in Romantic Couples Over Days and Months. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 2020; DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa149
3. Impett, E. A., Strachman, A., Finkel, E. J. and Gable, S. L. (2008). Maintaining Sexual Desire in Intimate Relationships: The importance of approach goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5): 808–23.
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6. Kuster, M., Backes, S., Brandstätter, V., Nussbeck, F. W., Bradbury, T. N., Sutter-Stickel, D., & Bodenmann, G. (2017). Approach-avoidance goals and relationship problems, communication of stress, and dyadic coping in couples. Motivation and Emotion, 41, 576–590. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9629-3