A quick walk through the checkout line at most grocery stores takes you past an array of magazines that the store hopes you will grab on your way out. The headlines from those magazines scream out solutions to the problems people struggle with. And to judge from their content, three of the biggest problems center around weight loss, sex, and relationships.
Why are relationships such a source of anxiety?
A paper by Laura VanderDrift and Christopher Agnew in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that personal goals that people have trade off against relationship goals in ways that can hurt relationships.
The broad idea is one that is related to research that I did several years ago with Miguel Brendl and Claude Messner. We found that when people were strongly motivated to pursue a goal, it made people appreciate (or value) goal related objects more and to devalue goal unrelated objects.
Similarly, these researchers suggest that when people are highly motivated to pursue a personal goal, they devalue their relationship.
In their studies, people were either asked to consider a personal goal relevant to them (Should I learn to play the saxophone or not?) or to actually think about the steps required to carry out that goal (What are five steps I would need to take to learn to play the saxophone?). Previous research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues suggests that thinking about the steps required to carry out a goal increases the strength of that goal more than just thinking about the goal in general.
Across five studies in this paper, participants were much less willing to engage in behaviors that would have a positive impact on their relationship if they had an active personal goal than if they did not.
In one study, participants who were in a relationship were less willing to forgive their partner for a transgression when they had an active personal goal than when they did not. This was particularly true for transgressions that would get in the way of their personal goal.
In another study, participants were given the opportunity to get information improving their relationship or improving their ability to achieve personal goals. People who had an active personal goal were much less interested in getting information about how to improve their relationship than those who did not have an active personal goal. However, the more strongly that people felt that their romantic partner helps them to achieve personal goals, the more interested they were in information that would help them improve their relationship. So, even their interest in relationship information was related to whether that would help them achieve their personal goal.
A final study reversed this effect. In this study, some participants were induced to have a strong relationship goal by having them list steps they would take to improve their relationship. This group was much less interested in getting information to improve personal goals than a group that did not have an active relationship goal.
This set of findings reflects an important aspect of our motivational system. We are very efficient at achieving the goals that the motivational system engages. As a result, we focus on information that is useful for achieving our goals and we devalue information that is not related to achieving that goal. So, when we have an important personal goal, our relationships take a back seat. When we have an important relationship goals, our personal goals take a back seat.
So, if you find yourself wandering through the supermarket checkout aisle, and you resonate to the headlines about relationship problems, it might be time to think about specific steps you could take to improve your relationship as a way of engaging that goal.