Purpose and objective of the research: In this cross-sectional study we used a self-regulation perspective to better understand the experience of psychological distress in head & neck (H&N) cancer patients and their partners. We examined which goals they valued and the extent to which patients and partners experience goal disturbance. Furthermore, associations were explored between goal disturbance, goal reengagement, (goal)self-efficacy, and psychological distress. Methods and sample: H&N cancer patients and their partners, recruited from the Erasmus Medical Center Rotterdam (N = 40), were interviewed and completed questionnaires, assessing the above aspects of the self-regulation theory. Key results: H&N cancer patients and their partners experienced goal disturbance from the disease. Such disturbances were in patients significantly related to more psychological distress. Higher levels of goal re-engagement were related to less psychological distress, again only significantly in patients. More self-efficacy was significantly associated with less psychological distress in both patients and partners. Conclusions: Self-regulation abilities as goal re-engagement and self-efficacy may be screened and used as target in future psychological interventions, given their potential to decrease perceived psychological distress. In view of elevated levels of goal disturbances in partners, psychological support for caring relatives in such interventions is recommended. (c) 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd.