Divide and conquer

Every month, Sarah Abell invites you to try a 30-day Life Lab Experiment to improve your love life


Divide and conquer

The project

Do you and your partner have very different approaches to planning a holiday or DIY project? One conjures up all the amazing things you can do while the other focuses on details, safety and budgets? If the answer is ‘yes’, that could be good news, according to Vanessa Bohns and her colleagues in their Opposites Fit research.

The aim

Relationships work best when both you and your loved one are aiming for the same goal, but have different strategies for reaching it.

The theory

In pursuing a goal, all of us have a preferred approach or ‘regulatory focus’ (Higgins et al, 2001). If you have a promotion orientation, you’ll prefer focusing on growth and advancement. If you have a prevention orientation, your primary focus will be on security and responsibility.

  • Many goals in your daily life will require both strategies. For example, teaching a child to play football requires encouragement to kick balls at a goal, and also vigilance to make sure the child doesn’t chase the ball into the road.
  • Bohns et al discovered relationship satisfaction is highest where a couple has the same goal but complementary approaches. In the football example, such an approach would involve the promotion-orientated partner focusing on helping the child shoot while the more responsible one looks out for any dangers.
  • Researchers concluded this division of labour allows ‘each member of the couple to take on their preferred strategic role during joint goal pursuit, leading to greater overall satisfaction with the relationship.’

Try it out

  • Identify one joint goal that you and your partner agree on. For example, it could be planning a holiday, teaching a child to swim or redecorating the spare room.
  • Decide which of you is more prevention- or promotion-focused. Who’d naturally want to be adventurous and who more responsible?
  • Divide and conquer. Brainstorm together some of the strategies needed to complete the joint goal. Identify those requiring a prevention focus or a promotion focus. Divide the roles according to your strengths. If you have very similar preferences, you might need to take turns and see what works best.

Sarah Abell is a relationships coach and the author of Inside Out – How To Build Authentic Relationships With Everyone In Your Life (Hodder, £8.99). Find out more at nakedhedgehogs.com. To buy her LifeLabs Practical Wisdom online course How to Save Your Relationship, please click here. You can try a free 3-day taster trial first too.