Helping Each Other Achieve Goals

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In a new study researchers have added insight into when support from a partner is helpful and when it can actually undermine achieving goals. The implications are important not only for managing a successful effort to achieve health related goals such as getting more exercise or eating healthier meals, but unhelpful support could also lead to relationship conflict, dissatisfaction and frustration.

It has been known for some time that not all social support is beneficial or welcome. We tend to think that getting support from a partner would help us achieve our goals and make us feel cared for. Yet support that is not skillfully provided can make things worse. Often times, the best type of support you can provide your partner is when he or she does not even realize it; otherwise known as "invisible support."

In the current study, volunteers were couples who were dieting and were asked to describe: "How much my weight loss was an important goal for my partner." Ironically the more a dieter perceived that their partner was invested in their weight loss, the less likely he or she lost weight and in fact actually gained weight!

Further studies found that when a person was uncertain about achieving a goal, they were more likely to request that their partner leave them alone. In contrast, feeling confident about achieving a goal and getting support from a partner led to increased effort and greater goal success.

You can see how these findings might play out in your own relationships especially when you are trying to help your partner and it only makes things worse. I am especially aware of this when trying to help my teenage daughter Ruby achieve goals that she may feel uncertain about. Often times, I believe she sees my support as my own goals for her and interprets my advice as controlling and unhelpful.

It's no wonder she often replies with "Just leave me alone Dad." It may be especially important to recognize when our partner feels less confident about achieving a particular goal so that we provide them the space to figure it out and not get in the way. Not only do we risk undermining our partner's effort when they are uncertain by providing overt support, we also are likely to feel hurt and misunderstood when our support is unwanted.

The Pain of Rejection

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So we have all been there. That horrible moment when our beloved tells us that this is the end. The dreaded breakup. For many of us, this ranks among the worst emotional experiences of our lives. Painful. Yet how does this type of emotional pain differ from the pain we experience when we stub our toe in the middle of the night or scald our tongue on molten pizza?

Pamela Paul writes in the NY Times about a new study that uses brain imaging to discover how these experiences might be related. Previous research has found that there is indeed similar neural areas that light up on the fMRI pictures of brains experiencing both physical and emotional pain. Although the brain seems to process the emotional component of painful experiences similarly, there are known to be distinct areas that process the bodily sensation of pain- my aching toe, my blistering tongue.

What the new study suggests is that if the social rejection is powerful enough, a devastating break up for instance, the brain may in fact engage areas that process painful physical stimuli. We may not feel a specific pain in our toe after a breakup, but perhaps the physical pain is more diffuse, an overall ache. The researchers in this study found that when testing people who had recently broke up with a partner activated similar brain regions for physical pain when looking at their lover and recalling the moment when they were dumped as when they experienced hot coffee being spilled on their arm! It has been thought that people may experience various forms of chronic pain such as fibromyalgia after a history of social rejection.

It's not too difficult to imagine that a person who too often experiences the feelings of anger, sadness, shame, and anxiety after a break up or even a bitter argument with a friend or family member might also start to feel declines in physical health. We are social creatures, we thrive on the comfort, safety and joy we experience when we are with those closest to us. When that source of nourishment and security is often threatened we may be more likely to actually feel physical pain.

My Fitbit

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One way I thought would engage students right away toward thinking about how relationships impact health is to ask my wife Betsey to come in on the first day and have us briefly talk about how we help each other meet fitness and health goals.
Recently we purchased a new product called Fitbit that is basically a very small accelerometer that tracks your steps and even records your movements while sleeping to track how often you wake during the night. With some nifty software to track food intake and other activities you can quickly see why you are adding pounds to your frame each month.

I have always known that weight gain is a simple formula of calories consumed over calories burned. There are many products/apps on the market now that track this for you. Fitbit seemed to work right away for Betsey and me. Last month, once the weather started improving, we decided to walk together with our crazy Boston Terrier Pearle every morning, rain or shine.

This turned out to be a great thing not only for our health but for our relationship as well. Since we are both busy with various projects, we often spend too much time in front of the computer and not enough quality time with each other. Our morning walks became a time to reconnect, share our feelings and plans for the day, tell each other about interesting news, and sometimes even work out a disagreement. Pearle never seemed to mind.

Well that's all great, I was enthusiastically entering my food consumption each day and I even noticed that I started to cut down on some of the excess snacking that I typically do when I am mindlessly trying to avoid work. Being aware of what I eat and challenging myself and Betsey to get our 10,000 steps seemed to be pushing that that equation more in favor of the calories burned. Even a little competition started to set in when Betsey realized that I had 20,000 steps one evening and she only had 8,000. She promptly got up and took a walk with Pearle even though it was already well after dark, something she would have never considered in the past.

So I'm thinking, this would be great as a research tool for my roommates study in the fall. Its so easy to use. Only one problem. Two days ago I woke up and got dressed and realized I had not worn the fitbit to bed. I went to retrieve it from the shorts I was wearing the day before and to my horror, it was not there. I looked everywhere but realized that the tiny device had likely brushed up against something either when I was working in the yard or riding my bike. A $100 investment gone in a week! Snakebit again.

Its not the cost really but the sense of control I was feeling about my health and how that was nicely dovetailing with my wife's health goals. It sucks being an out of work PhD. I can't easily fork over another 100 and yet I value what the device was helping me achieve. What to do...

Relationships and Health Class

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Next week Maryhope Howland and I will be teaching an intensive 3 week class on relationships and health at the University of Minnesota. We have 25 students who will meet 4 days a week for 2 and a half hours to discuss a selected scientific journal article assessing how interpersonal relationships impact important health related areas such as stress management, self-regulation, caregiving and social support as well as the health benefits of marriage and sex.

We will ask the students to comment on each article and think about how it might apply to their own lives or someone they know. Students could also write about how some of these ideas might have popped up in the popular media, movies, TV or in literature. I'll be creating a blog that publishes their thoughts about these issues and invite others to comment with their own personal stories of how those who we know and love influence our health and well-being.


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This is the blog space for the relationships and health class. You will be posting your reactions to the journal readings here and hopefully getting feedback and commentary from your classmates

Recent Comments

  • wlas0006: Something else to think about. It is also well established read more
  • howl0029: I'm looking forward to this! read more

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