Intentional vs. Tacit Behavioral Goals in Love

5 min read

Behaviors have intentional goals—what we plan or try to do—and tacit goals—what we implicitly try to do. Tacit goals are automatic behavioral impulses, based on autopilot judgments. Intentional and tacit goals often clash, especially in close relationships. A sign that this might be happening to you is the sense that your partner or people in general misunderstand you or doubt your intentions.

Intentional goals may have more action force, but tacit goals have more control over involuntary muscles, which show up in body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. For example, suppose your intentional goal is to persuade your partner to do something. If your tacit judgment is that your partner is unreasonable, selfish, or ignorant of the problem, your implicit goal will be to undermine your partner’s confidence to get compliance with your plan. You won’t be aware of what your partner reacts to and are likely to view the inevitable negative response as confirmation of your tacit judgment, that your partner is unreasonable or selfish or ignorant.

Intentional goals can override tacit goals, but it takes reflection and effort and is almost impossible to do while angry. Partners know that respectful negotiation is more likely to yield successful outcomes, but their conflicting tacit behavioral goals make them do otherwise and blame the inevitable negative outcome on each other or on poor communication.

The following are common impediments to aligning tacit and intentional goals.

  • Impression management. If I need to make an impression on my partner that I’m smarter or more competent, my intentional goal of negotiating behavior change will sound manipulative or condescending.
  • Ego defense. My goal of negotiating with my partner will turn into coercion if I construe disagreement as disrespect.
  • Coping habits. If my automatic response to discomfort is to blame, deny, or avoid, these will override my intention to negotiate.
  • Misconstruing emotional signals. These tend to make us give up on goals and sabotage agreed-upon tasks. Correction signals (off course, try something else) seem like failure signals, evoking shame—I can’t do it. Yellow lights (be careful), evoke anxiety and seem like red lights—I shouldn’t do it.

Behavioral Goals Must Come From Values

We tend to think of goals in terms of achievement and problem-solving. Yet the tacit and intentional goals that have the most profound effects on our lives are those that enhance or violate values.

I’ve written elsewhere about partners softening their implicit judgments, based on their deeper values (How to Prevent Hurtful Exchanges in Love). That’s the most efficient way to align tacit and intentional behavioral goals. Softening your implicit judgments means looking at your partner’s motivation more compassionately, which increases your self-value and the likelihood of evoking cooperation from your partner.

Changing implicit judgments is a form of self-regulation, which each partner must do independently. Together, you need to describe the relationship you most want to have, based on your deepest values, and then set behavioral goals that will take you there.

This will not be easy if your relationship is hurtful or plagued with chronic resentment and anger. In that case, you’ll focus intensely on what you want your partner to do or stop doing. The focus on changing your partner perpetuates feelings of powerlessness and frustration.

If the behavior is abusive—intentionally hurting, shaming, or frightening—it’s non-negotiable and must stop. But the brain doesn’t do negatives; it must do something incompatible with the non-negotiable or undesired behavior. Attempts to change your partner with negative labels and characterizations—or by blaming your partner for blaming you—are all but guaranteed to evoke more bad behavior. Consider which of the following, either overtly expressed or assumed, is more likely to be successful.

  1. “You’re abusive, a bully, narcissistic, unreasonable, borderline, hysterical.…”
  2. “I feel that you’re abusing, lying, browbeating, gaslighting me.”
  3. “I know that in your heart, you don’t mean to hurt or devalue me, but I’m feeling (hurt or devalued). We need to be more compassionate to each other.”

The first two alternatives will make you feel powerless and will likely make things worse. The third alternative will feel more empowering, truer to your deeper values, and will not make things worse, even if it doesn’t make them much better.

We’re human and can’t always self-regulate. If your partner is doing the first two alternatives above, make it your goal to change those negative perceptions, rather than reinforce them. You don’t want your partner to feel so hurt that negative labels are all that come to mind. Try to think of what your partner is reacting to, what you said or did immediately before the negative labeling. Expressing or assuming something like the following will improve the interaction:

Motivation Essential Reads

“I’m sorry for hurting you. I never want to hurt you, and I need to be more vigilant about the effect of my behavior. I want to be understanding and compassionate when we disagree or talk about behavior change.”

Your answer to the following question should help in setting behavioral goals that will bring you closer to the relationship you desire: What does my partner want from me?

You’ll need to go deeper than your initial ego-defense answer that your partner wants you to admit you’re wrong or plead guilty to all accusations. After considerable reflection on the answer, you’ll probably come up with a more empowering enlightenment.

Partners want to know that they matter to us. If our good-faith goal is to make our partners feel that they’re important to us, most problems become easier to resolve, without resentment, because both partners feel valued.

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