Could Prioritizing Your Career Hurt Your Relationship?

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
By Gwendolyn Seidman

Could doggedly pursuing a personal goal (such as making partner at your law firm) or a fitness milestone (such as getting into the Boston marathon) make you less interested in working to improve and maintain a romantic relationship? It turns out that single-minded pursuits like these might actually be detrimental to your love life.
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Normally, when we are deciding whether we should pursue a goal, we process information about that goal in a deliberative mindset. For example, if you’re deciding whether to 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 mindset, where rather than thinking about whether the goal is a good idea, you focus on how you can achieve it.

So, once you’ve committed to the decision to take a job, you’re no longer weighing the pros and cons; instead, you're figuring out how to break the news to your current boss, budgeting with your new salary, and/or looking for apartments closer to your new office. You’re no longer considering all of the evidence; you’re just considering the evidence that supports your goal. In a nutshell, you’re being one-sided about the issue.

What does all that have to do with your relationships? According to new research by Laura VanderDrift, PhD, and Christopher R. Agnew, PhD, quite a bit. Once you’re in the implemental mindset with respect to your goal, that mindset bleeds into your relationship in two ways. 

A Goal-Pursuit Mindset Leads To One-Sided Thinking 
Once you've made up your mind about reaching a goal, you might start to consider everything, not just the goal, in a one-sided manner. This includes your relationship. If you generally think your relationship is going well, you’ll evaluate any events that happen within it positively; if you think it's going poorly, you’ll evaluate those events negatively. The study authors predicted that having your mind made up about a personal goal could cause you to make a one-sided assessment of your relationship; they conducted two experiments to test this hypothesis.

In Study 1, participants were induced to have a deliberative or implemental mindset about a personal goal. Some were asked to consider 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. The other group was asked to think about a personal issue that they wanted to accomplish in the near future; these participants were asked to write down exactly how they would pursue that goal.  

Related: Everything You Need To Know About Long-Distance Relationships


Before the mindset manipulation, participants completed a relationship questionnaire, which they were led to believe would serve as a diagnostic tool, helping them determine their own relationship functioning. Participants then received false diagnostic outcomes after completing the mindset task: All subjects received the exact same, relatively neutral, feedback. They were all told five positive statements (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 does”). 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 mindset manipulation. Within the one-sided, "my mind is made up" thinkers, would the satisfied couples only see the good in that feedback, and the dissatisfied couples only the bad?

Those who were still deciding seemed to take the feedback at face value, with both satisfied and dissatisfied individuals rating it equally. However, the implemental-mindset participants took a more one-sided view; those who were dissatisfied viewed the neutral information more negatively than those who were satisfied. 

In Study 2, researchers manipulated mindset again. But, this time, they wanted to see how it affected people’s ratings of their relationships. When participants rated their relationships (on a series of qualities regarding commitment, satisfaction, investment, and the quality of potential alternative partners), those who had their minds made up, once again, took a more one-sided view. They rated different aspects of their relationship more similarly to each other than those in the deciding-stage mindset. That is, those who had decided were more likely than those who were still deciding to give similar ratings for all of the relationship items — which suggests that their analysis of their relationships lacked nuance. 

These studies tell us something about how our mindsets affect the way we evaluate our relationships. But, what about our efforts to improve and maintain those relationships? 

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.


A Goal-Pursuit Mindset Reduces Interest In Pursuing Other Goals 
Once you've decided to pursue a goal, you're more single-minded and less inclined to pursue other goals, especially if focusing on those goals could conflict with your chosen goal. So, when you zero in on a personal goal (that marathon or some such), any goals to improve or maintain your relationship will take a backseat to the pursuit of that personal achievement. If your relationship seems good, then you’ll just let it be; you won't try to work on it, because you assume it will be fine. If the relationship isn't going well, you’ll also let it be — because it feels 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 3, the researchers found that those induced to have an undecided mindset were more likely than those who had their mind set on a goal 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”). Since they were still weighing the pros and cons of the goal, these undecided participants expressed a greater willingness to sacrifice that aim. Meanwhile, mindset 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”).

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 who didn't have a clear-cut goal in mind were more interested in learning about how to improve their relationships, as compared to those who were focused on a personal goal. 

Finally, to rule out the possibility that once you're focused on achieving a goal, you'll simply become more focused on yourself and your own needs, the authors conducted an additional experiment, in which participants wrote about a relationship goal rather than a personal one. When participants considered implementing a relationship goal, the results of the fourth study reversed: Those who had their minds made up about a relational goal were less interested in self-improvement than those who hadn't set a definite goal. This shows that the single-mindedness goes both ways; when pursuing a relationship goal, personal goals are put on the back-burner, and vice versa. 

These studies show that when we’re thinking about how to achieve a personal goal, such as getting a raise or a promotion, we become more one-sided in our evaluations of everything, including our relationships. And, this one-sided thinking makes us less motivated to work on those relationships. So, when you're focused on getting promoted at work, you should try to switch your mindset when interacting with your partner. Otherwise, setting your mind on becoming CEO could lead you to neglect your S.O. 

Next: The Music Of Relationships