Soon after I had my first child, I started drifting away from my childless friends. When they asked me to go to the movies, meet up for dinner, or get a drink at a new coffee shop, I almost always said no. When they told me tales of first dates both good and bad, I couldn’t relate. And when I told them that we finally got my baby to sleep for four hours straight or how worried I was about whether she was eating enough, they had nothing to say in return. When I tried to laugh about silly commercials that claimed I needed both a cradle and a crib—which are essentially the same thing—they didn’t see the humor. Eventually, they stopped asking me to go out and I stopped telling them about what was happening in my life, which mostly revolved around my daughter.
The issue between my friends and me was deeper than a simple lack of interest in conversation topics. Our life goals had diverged. We often drift away from friends after something so major happens that it shifts the makeup of our lives. And because my friends and I were pursuing different goals, we had a hard time supporting each other.
Supporting each other’s goals is important in any successful relationship. Yet, in most relationships—be they friendships, family, or romantic relationships—each person is more concerned with feeling helped than providing help. The infamous breakup line “It’s not you, it’s me” is always true, for every relationship. According to motivation science, your relationships are generally about you. Specifically, they’re about connecting with people who facilitate your goals.
The people in your life not only help you meet your relationship goals—a spouse makes you a husband and a child makes you a father, for example—they also facilitate everything else you’ve set out to achieve. You pull closer to those who both support and ease the path to your ambitions and push away from those who hinder them. And because both people in a relationship want to feel supported, a relationship is only successful when both feel they’re getting something and giving something.
Often, it’s easier to provide support if you’re sharing similar goals. I say “often,” because technically, you can help facilitate goals you don’t hold for yourself. It just might be harder. Goal alignment helps to make happy relationships. We form friendships with people who hold similar goals and therefore encourage us to stick to what we want. In elementary school, you might have made friends with kids who liked to play on the monkey bars as much as you did. In high school, your friends may have been into the latest fashion and supported your goal to look good and be cool. At work, you’ve probably formed friendships with people who up- hold your values of hard work and honesty (and who watch the same TV shows or read the same books). Over time, as we grow and our interests change, friendships cool down and friends drift apart. It’s natural for high school friendships to dissipate, for example, when you go off to college and form friendships with people who share similar academic and life goals. These new friends are more useful for you, and you’re useful for them.
Of course, sharing the same goals doesn’t guarantee a supportive relationship; it only increases the odds. Your colleague who competes with you for a promotion shares a similar goal but might try to sabotage your professional success. In this case, the person who shares your goal is the last person you’d consider a friend. On the other hand, your parents might support your academic and professional goals even if their own paths in life were vastly different. One doesn’t need to have earned a college degree to support one’s child doing so. Ultimately, what matters is that a relationship helps rather than hurts your goals. If a parent doesn’t support their child’s wish to become a writer, an artist, or a chef, their relationship is likely to cool down.
Marriages will also fall apart when partners don’t support each other’s goals. And while it helps to have similar goals, it’s not necessary. Your partner might be an aspiring artist while you can barely doodle a flower, an avid cook while your signature dish is fried eggs, or a health care provider while you faint at the sight of blood. Setting aside these differences, you can still help each other succeed.
The supportive people in your life encourage you to stick with your goals and push you when you’re falling behind. They expect you to be successful but are still impressed by your successes. They might also provide resources—like the partner who can only fry eggs but who buys you a nice pie plate or makes sure you always have a clean pot when you need one. They might take on greater responsibility in other areas of your shared life to empower you to pursue your goal— like my husband, who took on extra child care when I wanted to write this book. They may even help you pay the bills when pursuing your goals requires money.
Just as when I had kids, when our goals change, so do our relationships. Beyond the macro changes—big life stages we go through, like becoming a parent or starting a new job—there are micro changes to your goals. Goals fluctuate daily. This morning, I was homeschooling my son, who’s stuck at home due to the pandemic and largely dependent on his parents’ limited ability to teach a second-grade curriculum. His newly virtual homeroom teacher was instrumental in helping me. In the afternoon, I was back to my university job. Schoolwork was completed and my son’s teacher was no longer the person I could rely on. My goal had shifted and so had the people who were helping me.
These fluctuations matter. We move toward and away from people as we prioritize or deprioritize the goals they can help us achieve. When it’s the right time to attend to a goal or when we feel we’re falling behind, a goal gets high motivational priority. As a result, we draw closer to those who are instrumental to achieving it. Once the goal has sufficiently progressed and its motivational priority reduces, we feel less close to those people.