When Pursuing a Goal Means Ignoring Your Partner

Photo: Ingo Boddenberg/Corbis

Often, we find ourselves doggedly pursuing a personal goal like career advancement or a fitness goal. Could these single-minded pursuits make us less interested in working to improve and maintain our relationships?

Normally, when we are deciding if we should pursue a goal, we process information about that goal in a deliberative mind-set. For example, if you’re deciding whether you should take a new job, you will carefully consider the pros and cons of that decision. However, once you’ve set yourself on a goal, you enter an implemental mind-set, where rather than thinking about whether it’s a good idea to pursue the goal, you think about how you can achieve the goal. So, once you’ve committed to the decision to take the job, you’re no longer weighing the pros and cons, but instead figuring out how to break the news to your current boss and looking for apartments closer to the new office. You’re also no longer considering all the evidence; rather, you’re just considering the evidence that supports your goal. In a nutshell, you’re being one-sided about the issue. 

So what does all that have to do with your relationships? According to new research by Laura VanderDrift and Chris Agnew, quite a bit. Once you’re in the implemental mind-set with respect to your goal, that mind-set bleeds into your relationship in two ways. 

The implemental mind-set may make you consider everything, not just that goal, in a one-sided manner. That means you will also view your relationship one-sidedly. So, if you generally think your relationship is going well, you’ll evaluate any events that happen in your relationship positively, and if you generally think your relationship is going poorly, you’ll evaluate those events negatively. Thus, the authors predicted that being in an implemental mind-set for a personal goal would cause people to make one-sided assessments of their relationships and conducted two experiments to test this hypothesis. 

In Study One, participants were induced to have a deliberative or implemental mind-set about a personal goal. Those in the deliberative mind-set condition considered a personal issue about which they were currently undecided, such as, “Should I quit smoking or not?” They were then asked to write down the consequences associated with that decision and any problems that might occur if they tried to pursue that goal. Those in the implemental mind-set condition thought about a personal issue that could be accomplished in the near future and were asked to write down exactly how they would pursue that goal. 

Before the mind-set manipulation, participants were led to believe that a relationship questionnaire they had completed was a diagnostic tool that could help them determine their own relationship’s functionality. They then received false diagnostic feedback after completing the mind-set task, with all subjects receiving the exact same, relatively neutral feedback about their relationship, containing five positive statements about the relationship (e.g., “You and your partner are more compatible than the average college couple”) and five negative statements (e.g., “You have a harder time communicating with your partner than the average partner”). Subjects were then asked to rate how positive this feedback was. 

The researchers examined how participants’ relationship satisfaction played a role in their response to the mind-set manipulation — would the one-sided implemental mind-set lead satisfied couples to only see the good in that feedback and dissatisfied couples to see the bad? Those in a deliberative mind-set seemed to take the feedback at face value, with both satisfied and dissatisfied individuals rating it equally highly. However, those in an implemental mind-set took a more one-sided view; those who were dissatisfied viewed that neutral information more negatively than those who were satisfied. 

In Study Two, researchers manipulated subjects’ mind-sets again, but this time they wanted to see how doing so affected people’s ratings of their relationships. When participants rated their relationships on a series of qualities regarding commitment, satisfaction, investment in the relationship, and the quality of potential alternative partners, those in an implemental mind-set, once again, took a more one-sided view. They rated different aspects of their relationship more similarly to each other than those in a deliberative mind-set. That is, those in an implemental mind-set were more likely than those in a deliberative mind-set to give similar ratings for all of the items, suggesting that their analysis of their relationships lacked nuance. 

But those studies just examined how mind-sets affect the way we evaluate our relationships — what about our efforts to improve and maintain our relationships?

The implemental mind-set that you’re in once you’ve chosen to pursue a goal makes you more single-minded and less inclined to pursue other goals, especially if focusing on those goals could conflict with your chosen goal. This means that goals to improve or maintain your relationship will take a backseat to the pursuit of the personal goal. If the relationship seems good, then you’ll just let it be and not try to work on it because you assume your relationship will be fine. In contrast, if the relationship seems bad, then you’ll also let it be and not work on it because it’s hopeless. The authors conducted three additional studies to test their hypothesis that this one-sided view makes people less inclined to work on their relationships. 

In Study Three, the researchers found that those induced to have a deliberative mind-set were more likely than those in an implemental mind-set to forgive behavior that thwarted personal goals (e.g., “Your partner had friends over the night before you had an important exam and kept you from sleeping well”), whereas mind-set had no effect on forgiveness for merely irritating behaviors (e.g., “Your partner had friends over and kept you from sleeping well, even though he or she knew you were tired”). Similarly, those in a deliberative mind-set expressed greater willingness to sacrifice the goal they had considered during the mind-set manipulation. In other words, those in the implemental, goal-pursuing mind-set were less generous toward partners who were seen as impeding that goal. 

In a fourth study, in which participants were told they could receive feedback about how to improve various areas of their lives, the researchers found that those in a deliberative, compared to an implemental, mind-set had more interest in learning about how to improve their relationships, but there was no mind-set effect on their interest in learning to improve themselves in non-relational areas. 

Finally, to rule out the possibility that the implemental mind-set simply leads people to become more focused on themselves and their own needs, regardless of the goal that is being pursued, the authors conducted an additional experiment, where participants wrote about a relational goal, rather than a personal one. When participants considered implementing a relationship goal, the results of the fourth study reversed. Those who entered an implemental mind-set for a relational goal were less interested in self-improvement than those in a deliberative mind-set. This shows that the single-mindedness goes both ways — when pursuing a relationship goal, personal goals are put on the back burner. 

These studies show that when we’re thinking about how to achieve a personal goal, we become more one-sided in our evaluations of everything, including our relationships. And this one-sided thinking about relationships makes us less motivated to work on our relationships. These results suggest that when you are pursuing a personal goal you should try to switch your mind-set when you’re thinking about or interacting with your partner. Otherwise, an implemental mind-set might lead you to neglect your relationship. 

This post first appeared on Science of Relationships. Gwendolyn Seidman is an associate professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Albright College. She writes a regular column on Psychology Today