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How Breaking Up Helps and Hurts You Achieve Personal Goals

Imagine that you have a personal goal, such as exercising regularly. Now, imagine you also have a romantic partner. That partner can either help (e.g. by encouraging you to join them in exercising) or hinder (e.g., by encouraging you to stay home and binge watch your favorite TV show) your pursuit of your goal to exercise regularly. If your partner helps you, researchers would say that your partner is instrumental to helping you pursue the goal. If instead of helping you, your partner hindered, or got in the way of completing the goal or didn’t help you to complete it, then researchers would say that your partner is non-instrumental to helping you complete the goal.

There has been a growing body of research on how romantic couple members help each other complete their goals (e.g., check out our posts here and here), but recently researchers set out to examine what happens to goal pursuit after breakup.1 To do this, researchers asked people about a goal that they were pursuing (e.g., getting good grades) and how well their romantic partner helped them towards attaining the goal (e.g., the extent to which their partner helped). The researchers then contacted the participants 2-3 months later; some of the participants’ relationships had ended in that 2-3 month period.

When a romantic relationship ended with a partner who was instrumental to completing a goal, participants’ goal pursuit was hindered. Why? They no longer had that person there to help them to complete their goal and so they didn’t make as much progress. However, when a relationship ended with a partner who was non-instrumental, there was a trend towards participants’ goal pursuit being helped; they were now able to pursue that goal without their partner getting in the way. The researchers also found that relationships with non-instrumental partners were more likely to end than were relationships with instrumental partners.

I like this research because it’s the first to look at goal pursuit after relationships end and because it spurs new questions. For example, is subsequent goal progress influenced by who broke up with whom? Stay tuned.  

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1Gomillion, S., Murray, S. L., & Lamarche, V. M. (2015). Losing the wind beneath your wings: The prospective influence of romantic breakup on goal progress. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 513-520.

Dr. Lisa Hoplock - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa's research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations -- situations affording both rewards and costs -- such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals. 

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