In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I help many clients improve their relationships in couples counselling. In some instances, the relationship has deteriorated so much that one or both partners have very little motivation to work on skills to improve the relationship and may even be considering getting out. At such a dire point, the partners may believe that they do not have the energy to work on the relationship. They may additionally believe that even if they were both willing to work on the relationship, there would be little point in doing so given the relationship’s current hopeless state.
In these apparently pessimistic circumstances, I try to be realistically optimistic with the couples with whom I am working. On the one hand, I am realistic in letting them know that it will take a lot of work to improve their relationship to the point where they can enjoy it and want to remain in it. On the other hand, I provide optimism by informing them that if they are ready to do some work and exercise patience while waiting for the benefits of that work to be realized, there is a good chance that they can again enjoy their relationship and each other.
I provide further reason for hope by giving these couples an approach to tracking their progress which will help them to keep working on their relationships when they are tempted to give up. It is similar to the approach I use to keep going when I still have a long way to go in the many marathons and triathlons I have completed. I will discuss this approach to tracking progress in the following sections.
Tracking progress improves your motivation to keep going
When competing in a marathon or a triathlon, it takes a lot of motivation to keep going when you are far away from the finish. A strategy I use to stay motivated in these instances is counting off the miles or kilometers as I complete them. Even when I still have a long way to go, I get a psychological boost when I notice that I’m increasing the number of kilometers I have completed and that I have a smaller number of kilometers remaining. In contrast, it has been much more difficult for me to stay motivated to keep going.in those events in which I am not aware of the number of kilometers I have completed.
In a similar manner, it is difficult to gather the motivation to ‘keep going’ to improve your relationship when you are far from your goal of enjoying it. Having said that, tracking progress in the early stages can help you and your partner stay motivated to continue taking steps to slowly but surely move you toward your goal. Tracking progress reminds you and your partner that even though your relationship may still be far from where you both would like it to be, you are moving in the right direction. It gives you a light at the end of the tunnel based on the reasonable expectation that if you keep working, you will eventually reach your goal of having the relationship you both want.
Use numbers to track progress: Like in a marathon or a triathlon
Tracking progress in improving your relationship is best done with numbers, just as it is in tracking progress in a marathon or a triathlon. With the couples I work with, I use standardized relationship satisfaction questionnaires for this purpose. These contain straightforward questions like ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how happy you are in your relationship’.
Typically, couples who have had a lot of negativity in their relationships will begin their journey to improvement with ratings on the lower end of the scale—sometimes as low as 1 or 2. However, once they begin taking steps to improve their relationships they can see small but meaningful improvements in the numbers. Even a move from 1 to 2 or from 2 to 3 can provide a psychological boost which signifies that even though they still have a long way to go, their efforts are working. This provides them with the motivation to continue to put in the consistent effort which will allow them to reach their goal.
Contrast this with a couple who do not measure their progress numerically. Even though they may have made progress, they will be less likely to recognize this because they have not been looking for it and because their relationship is still very unpleasant. As a result, they will be less likely to realize that even though there is a long way to go, their efforts are moving them in the right direction. Instead, they are more likely to believe that their work is not paying off and that there is no point in continuing to work on their relationship. They are therefore more likely to give up on any such efforts.
The bottom line when it comes to marathons, triathlons and relationships: Knowing how far you’ve come will provide you with the motivation to keep moving toward your goal
May you track progress in your relationships, marathons and triathlons,