Coupling Motivation: Four Steps to Finding a Relationship That Fits You

What motivates you to do anything in life is a complex interweave of personal choice and interest combined with your social environment, and the pursuit of romantic relationships is no exception. Our society places a tremendous amount of pressure on people—men, women and those with non-traditional gender identities alike—to find a romantic counterpart and then, what that relationship should look like.

How you reconcile these pressures with your personal preferences and values—and even your insecurities and fears—determines how satisfied you’ll be with your romantic pursuits, and how you operate in any romantic relationship you find yourself in. Not much can be done about social influences, so gaining insight into, and refining, your own relationship-oriented motivation is a good place to start if you’re hoping to find that special someone.

The Principles of Motivation

For starters, your motivation to get out there to find love is shaped by some factors common to all goal-seeking behavior. Activation occurs when you take the first steps toward a goal (e.g., filling out an online profile for a dating website). It is often said that taking the first step to do something different in your life is the most difficult.  Continuing to move in the direction of your goal is known as persistence. Being persistent means that you continue to work toward a goal even when you encounter a roadblock along the way (e.g., having a bad date but still choosing to continue to date).

The intensity component of motivation refers to the level of energy and attention you employ to reach your goal. An individual who is determined to find a romantic relationship may approach this goal with vigor by creating an online dating profile, attending a speed dating event, and seeking out opportunities to interact with others.    

Activation, persistence, and intensity are all influenced by your sense of self-efficacy, or your confidence that you’ll be successful at the task you apply yourself to. Generally, the higher the level of self-efficacy you have (i.e., “I will have a great and loving relationship!”) the better your chances for a successful outcome, whereas low self-efficacy is correlated with procrastination, making excuses, avoiding challenging tasks, and minimal effort.

For some single people, not having taken the first steps to start a relationship (activation stage) may be a result of low self-efficacy as opposed to a lack of interest. It may be challenging for you to be willing to date if you don’t believe that you will be successful with the process. Therefore, it is important to consider how your perception of yourself—both in general and in the context of dating, in response to your past dating experiences—can either promote or inhibit your desire to find romance.

Where Self-Efficacy and Your Values Meet

A related factor, and one of the most influential when it comes to finding a compatible mate, is how important that pursuit is to you. Expectancy-value theory informs us that the intensity of our behavior is a function of both our self-efficacy and the value that our goals have for us. In other words, the more confident you are, and the more highly you value the construct of a romantic relationship, the more you will persist and apply effort towards achieving this goal.* Even if you don’t believe you will be successful at dating (i.e., you have low self-efficacy), you may still find yourself in the dating scene if your degree of motivation has a greater influence on your behavior than your perceived ability.

However, your goals can be important to you for different reasons, and much of this difference has to do with whether you are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. When you do something because you enjoy it, are interested in it, or find it pleasurable, this is called intrinsic motivation. If you enjoy forging new relationships in dating, or place a lot of value on starting your own biological family, then you're intrinsically motivated and will be more persistent and intensive in your pursuit of a romantic relationship.

When you do something because you are seeking a reward (e.g., financial security, praise/validation, etc.) or are trying to avoid punishment, this is called extrinsic motivation. A good example of someone who is extrinsically motivated to be in a relationship is a “gold digger”; once the gold dries up (i.e., the monetary security/reward ceases) then the relationship typically ends. People who enter the dating scene hoping to get some sort of reward out of the experience tend not to be persistent.

Understanding whether the motivation underlying your romantic pursuits is intrinsic or extrinsic can help you understand why you sought the relationships you did in the past, and influence the type of relationships you may want to seek. It may make the difference between finding a partner with a compatible personality as opposed to one with a considerable bank account (although finding someone with both may just be the best of both worlds).

Putting Principles into Practice

So, with some understanding of your motivational influences, how do you translate these concepts into finding the relationship of your dreams? Here are four (or five) steps to consider.

Step One: Understand your values and goals in relation to a romantic relationship. Writing down your goals and mission statement may be a good way to process and organize what it is that you really want from a relationship. Understanding both your intrinsic motivation (e.g., the enjoyment of being in a partnership) and your extrinsic motivation (e.g., financial security that comes from a union) can help create a clearer picture of whom you may want to date.

Step Two: Examine whether or not you believe you can be successful at starting a new relationship. Highlighting your personal strengths by journaling could help bolster your self-efficacy. Everyone has strengths that are often overlooked, so making the effort to identify them may positively affect your expectation of success in romantic relationships (as well as other domains in life).

Step Three: Develop a positive language database or mantra. Again, journaling can be helpful. In this case, try remembering the positive events in your life and making a list of positive self-statements .You might also come up with a mantra: a short statement or word that aids in concentration, focus or direction. A mantra could simply be the word “love” or the statement “I deserve to find happiness.” Phrases like these can positively affect your self-efficacy and thereby increase your motivation.

Step Four: Seek out an environment that supports your goals. Ask yourself, “What is it that I want from a partner and in what environment am I likely to meet that person?” If you are hoping to find a partner who shares similar religious or spiritual beliefs, then place yourself in an environment where you’re more likely to meet someone with these shared beliefs (e.g., church). This approach sounds obvious, but a lot of people are looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s not impossible to find love with a person you’ve met in the early hours of the morning, inebriated, at a club, but it is highly unlikely.

Step Five (optional): Initiate individual therapy or group counseling if you are in need of additional support. If you are single and believe that there is something deeper that is keeping you from dating then perhaps seeking therapy could assist in uncovering those internal roadblocks. Exploring the underlying influences associated with your motivation may hold the key to unlocking your future in love and in life.


* Values not only affect how and why we enter into a romantic relationship, but how we operate once that relationship is established. For instance, some individuals with strong religious convictions may value the institution of marriage to such an extent that ending an unhealthy relationship seems not to be an option.

Erik Schott, Ed.D., LCSW

Erik is a licensed clinical social worker and educational psychologist, specializing in the areas of ADHD; HIV/AIDS; couples therapy; addictions; LGBTQQIA issues; and childhood and adolescent developmental disabilities. A certified EMDR therapist, he has clinical interests in the effects of institutionalized trauma on knowledge acquisition and health outcomes. He also serves as a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC. His research interests include adult ADHD identity development. Please click here to learn more about Erik's practice.

Heather Cavion

Heather holds a BA from UCLA in Psychology with a minor in Applied Developmental Psychology. She is entering her second year of the MSW program at USC with a focus in Systems of Recovery from Mental Illness. Her social work experience has been with children and adolescents providing individual and group counseling services. She aspires to obtain her license and work in private practice with individuals who suffer from addiction. 

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Rita Bourgeois's picture

This was a very informative article.

Rose Baugher's picture

This is a great artical Erik. I very much enjoyed reading it.

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