The Surprisingly Accurate Way To ID (And Fix!) Your Biggest Relationship Issues

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couple arguing on couch

Means-goals relations analysis is a method of looking at relationships based on how well the partners help each other to achieve their life goals.

Each person is the means to the other’s goals.

Relationships are analyzed according to goal theory, which states that:

  • Means are assessed according to their instrumentality in reaching goals
  • Means that are able to help achieve multiple goals are more highly valued
  • Multiple means exist for each goal
  • Inhibiting alternative means prevents their existence from diluting the perceived value of existing means

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Mutual perceived instrumentality, or a relationship in which each partner is instrumental in helping the other to achieve their goals, is considered to be the most satisfying type of relationship.

We can break this concept down further to help solve existing relationship problems, and to anticipate and prevent future relationship issues.

Attraction and Compatibility

According to means-goals relations analysis, it stands to reason that people will be most attracted to, and most compatible with, those who share goal congruence.

That is, your ideal partner is actively working towards goals with which you can be of assistance, and can provide assistance with the goals that you are trying to achieve.

Your individual goals need not be the same, but they should fit well together in a complementary manner. Likewise, relationships work best and are most satisfactory when both partners consider the other person useful and feel they are of use.

To keep your relationship strong, it is not enough to help your partner achieve his or her goals. It would help if you also asked for assistance in reaching your own. This leads to a mutually perceived instrumentality or the shared belief that you are good for each other.

Relations-goals analysis also identifies areas in which many couples get stuck.

Using mutual perceived instrumentality as the ideal, and applying the principles of goals theory to relationships, it is easy to understand the basis for these common complaints.

4 Common Relationship Problems You Can Identify The Source Of Through Means-Goals Analysis

1. Feeling unappreciated

Although means, or people, that can help achieve multiple goals are more highly valued, their individual contributions to each goal are devalued. This can lead to a situation in which one partner feels that his or her hard work across multiple dimensions of family life is unappreciated.



Circular arguments often ensue, as the other partner might feel an overall appreciation for the person, but be unable to articulate any concrete thanks for a specific task.

2. Shifting priorities

People are not static, and our goals shift and change over time. Partners must remain flexible and willing to support each other’s newly identified goals.

However, challenges can arise when partners grow in new ways that are very different from each other, and begin to have trouble valuing — or even understanding — each other’s new goals. Open communication is key to negotiating these shifts.

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3. Jealousy

No one person can be all things to another, and building a solid and diverse social network is critical to long-term happiness. Yet means-goals analysis tells us that the availability of multiple suitable means devalues the perceived worth of the existing means.

tool to figure out your relationships problemPhoto: janiecbros / Getty Images Signature via Canva

In other words, when several potential mates are around, it is human nature to pay less attention to one’s existing partner. When this happens, jealousy is the natural result.

Couples need to guard against this by checking their own behaviors and intentionally inhibiting advances from others. This brings attention back around to the existing partner and increases his or her perceived worth.

Participating in novel experiences with one’s current partner can also help, as it not only adds passion to the relationship, but can spark a new goal for which the partner is highly instrumental.

4. Lack of support

Losing a relationship, whether due to death or dissolution, is devastating for anyone. However, those that have the most trouble working through their grief are those for whom their partner was the primary means for all or most of their goals.

The bigger your social network, the more support and alternative means you have, the more successful you are likely to be at resolving your grief and moving forward.

Of course, these are just a few of the most common relationship difficulties. Couples have trouble for many reasons.

Whatever sticking points you might have, however, means-goals analysis may be able to help.

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Neuroscientist Lucy L. Brown, Ph.D. and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D. form the writing team of the Anatomy of Love, devoted to matters of the brain and romantic love.

This article was originally published at The Anatomy of Love. Reprinted with permission from the author.