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Sticking Together: Executive Control Cements Strong Relationships

We can learn a lot about what makes for happy, long-lasting romantic relationships by studying the various reasons why relationships fail. Though there isn’t a surefire algorithm that takes into account every possible factor that predicts how a relationship will evolve, research does give us insight into the characteristics and circumstances that help partners “stick” together – or not. One obvious reason why people break up is infidelity, or cheating. This “grim reaper” of relationships has attracted the attention of researchers who aim to identify tendencies that put partners at risk for getting into “sticky situations” outside of their current relationship. 

Even in the absence of actual infidelity, attention to alternatives may signal a relationship’s demise. That is, noticing all the people you could potentially be involved with other than your partner is one of the strongest predictors of breaking up.1 While ogling hotties may brew thoughts of cheating for an already-attached someone, not all romantically-involved individuals take interest in partner alternatives. Indeed, research has begun to address the question, “Why do some people find relationship-threatening temptations – such as other potential partners – highly alluring?” Part of the answer lies in individual differences in executive control, a broad set of mental processes that involves skills such as willpower, impulse control, and planning. Executive control is good to have when working toward long-term goals (like staying in a committed relationship with a current partner) because it helps us fight urges and temptations (such as attractive alternatives) that keep us from reaching those goals. One set of studies examined how executive control predicts unfaithful behavior among committed relationship partners. The researchers measured participants’ executive control via their performance on various tasks that measure different aspects of executive control. For example, a Stroop task measured the ability to inhibit behavior by requiring individuals to quickly name the color that a word is written in while ignoring the meaning of the word itself. Individuals who demonstrated lower executive control (i.e., poorer performance on the tasks) reported more difficulty staying faithful in their relationship, showed more interest in meeting an attractive member of the opposite sex, and flirted more with an opposite-sex confederate.2 On the other hand, committed partners with high executive control didn’t let thoughts of attractive alternatives “stick around.”

Although wanting to meet a cute guy or girl you see in the lab isn’t the same as actual cheating, we can conclude that executive control helps protect us from temptations that threaten established relationships. In this way, executive control might keep happy relationship partners from straying in search of other romantic or sexual opportunities. In addition to supporting faithful behavior, better executive control confers many other relationship-enhancing outcomes, such as forgiveness,3 better anger control,4 keeping promises,5 and trust.6 Like superglue, executive control is a near-invisible force that helps partners “stick together” by supporting behaviors that increase relationship well-being. Luckily, aspects of executive control can be practiced and improved over time,7 which may increase one’s ability to stay faithful to his or her beloved. So the next time you are tempted to procrastinate on the job, indulge in that extra slice of cake, or shout curses at the driver in front of you, try to resist: you might accrue unexpected relationship benefits by practicing skills that reflect executive control. 

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1Miller, R. S. (1997). Inattentive and contented: Relationship commitment and attention to alternatives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(4), 758-766. 

2Pronk, T. M., Karremans, J. C., & Wigboldus, D. J. (2011). How can you resist? Executive control helps romantically involved individuals to stay faithful. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 100(5), 827-837.

3Pronk, T. M., Karremans, J. C., Overbeek, G., Vermulst, A. A., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2010). What it takes to forgive: When and why executive functioning facilitates forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 119–131.

4Hofmann, W., Gschwendner, T., Friese, M., Wiers, R. W., & Schmitt, M. (2008). Working memory capacity and self-regulation: Toward an individual differences perspective on behavior determination by automatic versus controlled processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 962–977.

5Peetz, J., & Kammrath, L. (2011). Only because I love you: Why people make and why they break promises in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5), 887-904.

6Righetti, F., & Finkenauer, C. (2011). If you are able to control yourself, I will trust you: The role of perceived self-control in interpersonal trust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(5), 874-886.

7Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1801.

Jana Lembke - Science Of Relationships articles
Jana's research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning. 

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