Almost all relationship advice revolves around generating/maintaining positive emotions. While these are important, it’s frustrating that there isn’t more research and understanding of how relationships can function as levers for other aims – as catalysts for mental evolution, or as scaffolding for the ambitions of those involved, for example.
As for these other aims, one relevant area of psychology I’ve discovered recently is Transactive Goal Dynamics Theory (TGD), which “conceptualizes two or more interdependent people as one single self-regulating system” (for all quotes, see note 1). When an interdependent system is optimally functioning, says the theory, “relationship partners…earn better goal outcomes as a unit than they would as independent agents.” This transactive gain comes about through high transactive density (“numerous and strong links among members’ goals, pursuits, and outcomes”) and strong goal coordination (efficient, effective use of pooled resources around members’ goals and pursuits).
Some interesting (though not necessarily ground breaking!) takeaways from Transactive Goal Dynamics theory :
Time spent together (duration of relationship & frequency of interaction) plays a major determining role in enabling interdependence, through giving partners a chance to “garner more observations of each others’ goal pursuits” and communicate more about goals, while it “forces more adaptation to each other.”
Accuracy of understanding is key, because “coordinating complex and long-lasting goals over time is easier for partners who understand each other’s preferences, responsibilities, and skills.”
Goal responsiveness is necessary – each partner needs to be flexible in adapting their behavior to support the goals of the other or the dyad. Each also respects the standards of the other relative toward goals. For example, A wants to lose 20 pounds (A’s standard), B thinks A looks great having lost only 15 pounds (B’s standard), yet B still supports A in losing the extra 5 pounds. Responsive partners also respect each other’s “desired level of interdependence,” because even well-intentioned attempts to support another’s goals can cause conflict if the other doesn’t want that level of support.
Specialization of members according to the skills or interests of each is more effective than 50/50 splits, redundant pursuits, or other inefficient divisions of labor – though this “can be challenging because it necessitates that partners come to depend on each other, and thus, make themselves vulnerable as individuals.”
Weak goal coordination comes about through members not wanting the same outcomes for themselves, their partner, and the dyad – for example, A wants to advance their career, which necessitates longer work hours – if B doesn’t share this goal for A, B is less likely to make supportive actions toward A’s pursuit. Partners can also conflict over the value of goals, leading to less than ideal coordination of efforts, or they can disagree over the best means for accomplishing goals (A wants to cook at home more in order to lose weight rather than going to the gym, B shares the goal but wants to go to the gym more and still go out to eat).
Attachment style influences individuals’ motivation for or against interdependence. Avoidant = less inclined; anxious or insecure = more inclined to “seek greater goal interdependence as a means to promoting intimacy.”
It’s odd to me that goal pursuit dynamics in relationships isn’t talked about more, because according to TGD theory, “when people perceive that their partners are instrumental for their important goals, they feel closer to their partners and more satisfied with those relationships.” It reminds me of the idea that if we want to be happy, we shouldn’t pursue happiness directly (it doesn’t work that way), but rather pursue virtue or try to contribute to something meaningful, which generates happiness as a by-product. So, maybe if we focus more on goal pursuit and facilitating virtue within our relationships, those positive feelings we’re after will naturally follow.
(1) Finkel, Eli J., Grainne Fitzsimmons, and Michelle vanDellen, “Transactive Goal Dynamics” @ http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/eli-finkel/documents/InPress_FitzsimonsFinkelvanDellen_PsychReview.pdf