Focus on Your Goal Rather Than Being Right

This is also a mindset we teach our kids and use in our parenting but in this article we’ll focus on its importance in adult relationships. 

This article will cover

It can be very easy in a neurodiverse relationship to lose sight of the goal. And at least for us, when one of us forgets the goal, the other quickly follows and we’ve soon devolved into an argument or endless discussion about something unimportant. Either spouse can be the one to notice and speak up but it’s important for both to be willing to change course. 

How to Focus on the Goal

Let’s say you are trying to decide what to have for dinner and your conversation has gotten off track and you’re locked in a never ending argument about whether or not a particular spice is used in a particular cuisine (because yes, this level of detail-oriented disagreement is common when there’s an Aspie in the partnership). Whoever first notices announces, “What is our goal right now?” That phrase requires an immediate end to the discussion, even if there was no resolution. 

It can be very difficult (Tim says at times impossible) for an Aspie to end without resolution. It may require the help of a therapist to find strategies that work. Some people find it useful to text the topic to each other so it isn’t “lost” or add it to the agenda of the next marriage meeting or family meeting. Some people find that it helps to imagine taking the issue and putting it in a box and setting it on a shelf. Humor can help too. Or a way of talking about it. We always say that Tim is an ocean liner and Robin is a tugboat. Robin changes direction easily and Tim needs a lot of space or the help of a tugboat. A good therapist who is used to working with people with autism will have other ideas. Feel free to include what works for you in the comments below! 

Now say outloud what the goal is. “Our goal is to have supper tonight.” Then figure out how you can meet that goal. 

Maybe tonight it’s going to be leftovers or scrambled eggs because coming to an agreement just wasn’t possible and that’s why the discussion fell apart. Maybe one of you doesn’t want to be a part of the decision and just wants the other to decide. Don’t get into a new discussion, focus on the goal. 

Find the Actual Goal

It’s common to have trouble figuring out the goal when you’re first starting. For example, you might think the goal is “Decide what to have for supper.” But it’s not. The goal is to eat supper. Deciding what to eat is just a step on the way to the main goal. 

One way to find out if you’ve found the actual goal is to ask “Then what?” So if you think the goal is to decide what’s for supper, ask “Then what?” And when you answer “Then we’ll eat supper,” you’ll discover that toy actually had another goal.

If you ask “Then what?” and your answer is “I don’t know what we’re doing after supper” then that was your goal. But if you say, “Then we have to leave the house by 6:30 to catch the light rail downtown” well, eating supper isn’t actually your goal.

Your goal is to catch that train! So maybe you eat supper downtown to make it happen or maybe you grab a protein bar to eat on the way or maybe you have time for a full supper but you realize it’s not important what spice goes with what cuisine because you need to start cooking now.

Sometimes it’s okay to spend a lot of time and energy on something that isn’t the goal. But if you’re wanting to improve your relationship, one of the fastest ways to end bickering and hurt feelings is to focus on the goal. 

It can also be helpful at forcing you to be honest with yourself. If your goal truly is to “make her see she’s wrong” or “get him to agree with me” then you need to decide what’s more important to you, being right or being in the relationship. 

Our Screen Door

That said, you might think that’s your goal when it’s not. For example, Robin recently had a moment when she thought that her goal was to be right about using a particular type of screen to repair our screen door. The roll of “pet screen” she wanted to use to repair the screen door was relatively affordable and we could get it curbside pick up the next day.

Tim didn’t think it would be sturdy enough. Robin argued that the hole in our old screen was caused by Eleanor cutting a cat door for the outdoor cat (a rescued barn cat) to come inside and she forgot it would allow the inside cats to get outside but that she’s learned now. Tim argued that the pet screen couldn’t possibly hold up to the cats because it’s not metal. Robin said that they wouldn’t sell it as pet screen and have photos of animals climbing it if it wasn’t designed to hold up to that.

Back and forth. Each of us with our heels dug in, insisting we were right about whether or not this screen works even though neither of us had any proof. 

But then Robin realized that her goal was actually to get the screen door repaired as quickly as possible so our beloved cat won’t escape when the kids don’t latch the door all the way. When Robin refocused on her goals, she stopped arguing about whether or not the pet screen would be sturdy enough and instead said, “My goal is to have the screen door repaired right away so the cats don’t escape. This is the best screen I can find that we can afford and I’m willing to take the risk that it ends up with a tear in it.” 

This doesn’t always work perfectly. Tim retorted with, “My goal is to keep the cats safe too and we need metal screen for that.” But now at least our goals were aligned. 

“We have the same goal. To keep the cats safe. They are not safe right now. At any moment the kids could leave the door unlatched and we could have an escaped cat. We need to get the screen up right now and I can’t find the kind of screen you want for anything we can afford. It would be $80 for just enough to do the door and two weeks. We need something now.”

“$80? For a single screen? Two weeks? I guess we’ll have to see if the pet screen works.”

In the end, it turned out Robin was right. The cats climb the screen multiple times a day and we don’t have a single snag on it yet. But more importantly, we moved beyond gridlock once we focused on our goals. With a shared goal, we could focus on how to achieve the goal rather than getting side tracked by who was right. 

So start using this in your interactions with your partner (and if you have kids, read about using this technique in your parenting and teaching it to your kids). It’s a powerful method for getting unstuck and moving forward towards what’s important to you. 

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