The guide to relationship goal setting

Good’s psychology and relationship expert Dr Alice Boyes shares her advice on setting goals – and achieving them at any time of the year 

When it comes to New Year goals and your relationship there are two considerations. Firstly, setting personal goals often involves considering your romantic partner and whether your goal is going to require any involvement or support from them. Secondly, it can be worthwhile to use the New Year period to set some shared goals as well. Here are some tips for discussing and setting goals as a couple. 

1 Set goals that don’t feel like a chore. Sometimes when people think about New Year goals, they get stuck in a rut thinking about things they “should” do but that aren’t easy or fun, like diet-and exercise-related resolutions. Consider taking the year off from “shoulds” and picking more enjoyable endeavours that feel like things you actually want to do.

2 Pick a one-word theme as an alternative way of goal setting. If one of you is more the “goal-setting type,” this can be a way to get your partner on board without it seeming intimidating. This strategy can work when you’re communicating your personal goal to your partner and hoping for some enthusiasm from them, or when you’re coming up with a shared, relationship or family goal. Examples of one-word themes are: streamlining, simplifying, calm, together or gratitude. Again, the keyis to pick a word that sounds like a positive goal where you want to do more of something enjoyable. If you’re picking a shared theme, the word needs to stir good feelings for both of you. For example, streamlining or simplifying might sound positive, whereas “organised” might sound onerous. Check whether a word you’re considering has a positive association for your partner, rather than assuming it does. Once you have your theme, then you have the flexibility to work towards that theme in any way you want. 

3 Trust yourselves that you’ll work out any incompatibilities. When you’re talking about your dreams and plans, don’t panic if you’re not 100 per cent on the same page. My spouse and I travel a lot. This week we independently wrote down our ideal travel plans for the year, knowing that this would highlight some incompatibilities. The reality is that people in happy, committed, long-term relationships often have different wants and priorities. There is no need to panic if, when you discuss your ideal scenarios, there isn’t an obvious solution that will leave you both happy. You might need to muddle through and figure it out over time. By having an open discussion about what you each want, you are making sure you know what your partner wants, rather than guessing. A good question to ask yourself is whether your partner’s happiness feels of equal importance to your own. If you can answer yes, then you’re likely to approach incompatibilities from a loving perspective. 

4 Don’t be too demanding. If one of you is more the leader and the other more the follower, and that works for you both, then that’s fine. Likewise, if your partner isn’t the goal-setting type you may need to accept that his or her level of interest and enthusiasm in discussions about goals is what it is. To gauge whether a goal is likely to have a positive impact on your relationship, try asking yourself, “Will my/our goal lead to more positive interactions between me and my partner?” A shared goal might lead to you doing enjoyable things together. An individual goal might lead to you feeling good personally and therefore behaving in more happy, loving ways, or your partner might enjoy seeing you succeeding and growing in confidence as you expand your skills. If pursuing a goal could result in fewer positive interactions (e.g. less time together or  more arguments) then see if you can reframe the goal.

Alice Boyes, PhD, is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.

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