Western society frowns upon “quitters,” celebrating instead individuals who demonstrate persistence and determination (Dougher 1994
). But what happens when an individual confronts a goal that might be permanently blocked? Chronic medical conditions can impede numerous goals, necessitating marked alteration of one’s plans for the future. Researchers (e.g., Carver and Scheier 2000
; Heckhausen et al. 2010
; Wrosch 2011
) assert that disengagement from such blocked goals is adaptive, as it releases the individual from a futile effort and allows engagement in new or formerly set-aside goals. Research has supported the hypothesis that goal disengagement ability, as assessed as a dispositional tendency, is psychologically and physiologically adaptive (Miller and Wrosch 2007
; Wrosch et al. 2007
). Reengagement in alternative goals is related to positive psychological adjustment to goal blockage, and goal reengagement can buffer against low goal disengagement ability (Heckhausen et al. 2010
; Wrosch et al. 2003b
Although the benefits of goal disengagement and reengagement have been demonstrated, this emerging body of research is limited in several ways. First, studies have often employed a dispositional measure of goal adjustment ability rather than a situational measure assessing response to a current goal blockage. Such an approach does not allow examination of the extent of objective and subjective goal blockage or of the influence of engagement in extant valued goals and the generation of new goals on adjustment. Second, many studies have been conducted with healthy, young participants, who may never have experienced profound threat to a central life goal (Wrosch et al. 2003b
). Third, little research has addressed psychological factors that contribute to these self-regulation strategies. The primary goals of this study are to examine the relationships among situational goal adjustment processes, perceived and actual goal blockage, and psychological adjustment in the context of infertility and to specify factors that promote or inhibit goal adjustment. In addition to carrying theoretical implications, understanding the relationships between goal perceptions and goal adjustment in the context of a chronic medical stressor can aid clinicians in facilitating adaptive goal adjustment and promoting the pursuit of life goals to buffer the negative psychological effects associated with goal blockage. Such research can enable identification of risk factors for poor adjustment as a result of inflexible approaches to goal pursuit.
Wrosch et al. (2007
) proposed a theory of adaptive goal adjustment based on two self-regulation strategies: goal disengagement, which reduces distress and avails psychological resources, and goal reengagement, which increases well-being. Likewise, Heckhausen et al.’s (2010
) motivational theory of life-span development employs a developmental framework to examine goal adjustment constructs that overlap with Wrosch’s model. Goal disengagement is characterized by reducing effort toward goal completion and commitment to the goal, whereas goal reengagement consists of identifying an alternative goal, committing to the goal, and commencing activities towards achieving it (Wrosch and Scheier 2003; Wrosch et al. 2003a
). Dispositional goal disengagement ability is associated with high self-mastery, low perceived stress, low intrusive thoughts, fewer physical health problems (Wrosch et al. 2003b
), more normative (steeper) diurnal cortisol rhythms, better sleep efficiency (Wrosch et al. 2007
), and lower levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (Miller and Wrosch 2007
). Disengagement and reengagement processes can interact, such that reengagement buffers the negative effects of low disengagement on adjustment (Wrosch et al. 2003b
). Theories proposed by Wrosch et al. (2007
) and Heckhausen et al. (2010
) both emphasize the adaptive nature of altering personal goals when situational factors and biological constraints make goal achievement unlikely.
Research demonstrates that dispositional disengagement and reengagement abilities are independent processes, and these processes may have unique relationships with positive and negative measures of adjustment (Thompson and Stanton 2009; Wrosch 2011
). Goal disengagement may be associated with a reduction in negative affect, rumination, intrusive thoughts and depressive symptoms, whereas goal reengagement may be associated with an increase in positive affect, sense of purpose, and well-being, as individuals experience progress towards an attainable goal. The majority of research on goal adjustment has focused on negative outcomes (e.g., depressive symptoms, intrusive thoughts), but more recent research, including the current study, incorporates measures of positive adjustment.
Infertility is a context well suited to understanding processes of goal adjustment, in that it constitutes a potentially profound blockage of a central life goal, and women receiving treatment frequently receive feedback on their goal progress. Although having a biological child is a major life goal for many adults, becoming pregnant can be difficult or impossible. Affecting more than 10% of married couples (Abma et al. 1997
), infertility is defined as the inability to conceive a child after 1 year of engaging regularly in unprotected sexual intercourse (Mosher and Pratt 1982
). In addition, 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (Hill 1995
). When the goal of biological parenthood is blocked, often after years of trying to prevent conception, couples can experience depression and frustration (Clark et al. 1991
; Greil 1997
). Clark et al. (1991
) noted that “the dilemma of being caught between goal-fulfillment strivings and acceptance of one’s goal blockage or permanent infertility may be the most stressful aspect of coping with infertility” (p. 166). In line with theories of goal adjustment as an adaptive self-regulation strategy (Heckhausen et al. 2010
; Wrosch et al. 2007
; see Woodward 2004
, for a situational theory), our primary hypotheses were that greater disengagement from the goal of biological parenthood would be associated with fewer depressive symptoms and less infertility-related thought intrusion, and that goal engagement in direct response to infertility and general goal engagement both would be associated with more positive states of mind.
Examining goal-related processes in a situational context allows consideration of the extent of goal blockage on adaptive outcomes. During infertility treatment, women often receive monthly objective feedback on goal progress in the form of a positive or negative pregnancy test. Because high perceived goal blockage in conjunction with continued infertility treatment represents goal striving without goal attainment, we hypothesized it to be related to negative adjustment. While this hypothesis has been supported by previous data, objective measures of goal blockage have not been studied. Actual goal blockage in infertility can be operationalized as number of discrete unsuccessful treatment attempts. In that high actual goal blockage represents emotional, behavioral, and financial commitment to parenthood without goal progress, we hypothesized that it would also be associated with negative adjustment.
This study expands upon two previous studies that have examined situational goal processes in the context of infertility. Salmela-Aro and Suikkari (2008
) examined ratings of goal importance and goal attainability in a sample of women and men receiving infertility treatment. Six months after treatment failure, high ratings of goal importance (assessed by a single item) and low ratings of goal attainment were significantly associated with depressive symptoms. The authors interpreted findings as indicating that goal disengagement is an adaptive response to prolonged infertility. The current study builds on these findings by including reports of cognitive and behavioral aspects of goal disengagement (rather than using goal importance as a proxy for goal disengagement), as well as assessing general goal engagement and goal engagement in direct response to infertility, which are unique aspects of goal adjustment that may relate to psychological adjustment in distinctive ways.
In cross-sectional analyses of 83 men and women who had been aware of definitive infertility problems for an average of 12 years, Kraaij et al. (2009
) found that disengagement from the goal of biological parenthood was related to low negative affect, whereas goal reengagement was related to positive affect. The interaction between goal disengagement and goal reengagement was not reported, and the generalizability of these findings is limited due to the unique sample studied. The current study allows for comparison between alternate goal engagement independent of the goal blockage and engagement that occurs in direct response to goal blockage. Motivation for pursuing an alternate goal may be pre-existing and unprompted, or it may be incited by experiencing goal blockage. For example, one infertile woman may be focused on an already satisfying career (alternate goal engagement), whereas another woman might have assumed that motherhood would constitute her career and seek other options only after experiencing infertility (goal engagement in direct response to infertility). Role accumulation theory (Sieber 1974
) asserts that having multiple valued roles is protective for women’s mental and physical health, and empirical data support this theory (Barnett 2004
; Ruderman et al. 2002
). Heckhausen et al. (2010
) highlight the protective value of goal diversity and posit that maintaining varied goals is an essential component of adaptive goal pursuit. Linville also posits that greater self-complexity buffers against depressive and physical symptoms in response to stress, and evidence supports this theory specifically in the context of failed goals (Linville 1987
; Niedenthal et al. 1992
Relative to women who lack other meaningful life pursuits, women who endorse high engagement with pre-existing goals in areas such as careers or relationships may be at lower risk for depressive symptoms or thought intrusion and may be more likely to experience positive affect as they make progress toward these alternative goals. The current study employs a situational measure that asks participants to evaluate their goal adjustment in direct response to their infertility, as well as their level of engagement with pre-existing goals, in order to test whether they evidence similar relations with adjustment.
Which psychological factors promote or impede an individual’s ability to accept immutable goal blockage and pursue new goals? In a sample of 97 adolescent girls, high initial depressive symptoms predict an increase in dispositional goal disengagement ability and no significant change in reengagement ability over 13 months (Wrosch and Miller 2009
). The authors noted that the generalizability of this finding may be limited, as the sample was young, female, and identified as being at high risk for developing depressive episodes. Heckhausen et al. (2010
) point to empirical evidence indicating that goal appraisal and goal adjustment strategies change over the lifespan. During adolescence, depressive symptoms may serve the adaptive function of promoting the improvement of goal disengagement ability, but when experienced in adulthood, the associated cognitive rigidity and apathy may hinder individuals’ abilities to let go of cherished goals and reinvest in new goals (Wrosch and Miller 2009
). In the present sample, depression might hinder women’s abilities to disengage and enthusiastically reengage in alternate goals. We examined this question as well as additional potential contributors to situational goal adjustment ability. We postulated that greater infertility-specific intrusive thoughts would predict a decrease in goal disengagement and goal engagement, as women experiencing intrusive thoughts would be likely to remain fixated on the blocked goal. We also expected that greater positive states of mind would predict an increase in goal engagement, as experiencing positive states may promote flexibility and motivate women to pursue new endeavors (Frederickson 2001
). We hypothesized that both high actual and perceived goal blockage would predict an increase in goal disengagement, as individuals appraise the attainment of biological parenthood as increasingly unlikely.