Three Types of Goals and Their Use in Couples Therapy

This month we describe a way of classifying goals into three succinct categories and we show how to use them in couples therapy sessions.

Goals can be classified into three types: “doing,” “having/getting” and “being.” Consider each type:

1. DOING. These are action-oriented goals. They require some active behavior. Examples of these include participating in sports, activities, or hobbies. Other “doing” goals include giving a feared speech, hugging one's partner, or traveling to some desired vacation spot.

2. HAVING/GETTING. People talk frequently about what they would like to have. “I want to have two children, a loving marriage, and a successful career that I enjoy.” These are goals that are likely to be very inspirational or motivating to the emotional part of the person.

Clients also may describe things they want to get: a big house, a new car, more sex, or new clothes. Some of these may appeal primarily to ego-gratification.

3. BEING. These are goals that appeal more directly to a person's ego ideal. “I want to be more loving, be a better listener, or be a more effective parent.” These goals describe how we aspire to be in different circumstances or conditions in our lives. Often these are circumstances that stretch us and require growth.

How do these goals apply to couples therapy? The more distressed, unfocused and hostile a couple is, the more all three types of goals can be helpful to you as a therapist. Consider trying the following with a very angry, volatile couple.

First ask the partners individually to describe what they want to have or get. Here is what happened with Tam and Ira, a couple who had been fighting almost daily for three years.

Ira: I want a bigger house, get some free time, and have more sex.

Tam: I want another child, more vacations and more time with Ira.

Next ask, “How would you like to be in order to help bring these goals to fruition?”

Tam: I'd like to be more organized, be a better planner, and think ahead.

Ira: I'd like to be more affectionate, more appreciative of what Tam does for our son, and more conscious about saving money.

Interestingly by focusing on “how to be,” the partners will begin to get a map of what to do. Focusing on “being” goals will often influence much more productive behavior and give partners a reason to behave differently.

After defining the above “being” goals, Tam and Ira were asked to define what they would do.

Tam started with, “I will buy a large family calendar and put it on the refrigerator. I will get a babysitter for two Saturday nights each month.”

Ira started by committing to setting up an automatic savings plan with $100.00 deducted from each paycheck. He then decided to find one positive thing Tam did each day regarding the organization of the house or the parenting of their son and tell her before 8pm.

Tam and Ira began to see how all three types of goals fit together. To help your couples anchor their goals more completely, you can ask each partner to cut out pictures, make a collage or hang up a list of their wants on a wall somewhere at home. Be sure that what they describe creates motivation. And remind them that this is only the first step. Pictures of the vacation, the cabin or the next child will not reveal anything about what they have to do or how they have to be in order to bring it about. They have to remember the second part, their “being” goals.

Delineating the goals in this way can help you shift responsibility for change back to the couple. Each week before they leave your office, ask the partners to define one “getting,” one “being” and one “doing” goal that they will commit to focusing on for that week. The next session can begin with their self-report.

Again, this is most effective with the highly unfocused, volatile, distressed and disorganized couple. Couples who are clear in their motivation and who take responsibility for their therapy and their own changes won't need this much structure from you.

Our video on goal setting helps you delineate person-specific goals that are congruent with repetitive impasses the couple faces. Use targeted goal setting as one way to get better results with your couples. To order or to watch a free 17-minute segment of the video click Goal Setting.

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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