Partners’ level of similarity in their values, backgrounds, and life goals promotes attraction and relationship success. Although “birds of a feather” may flock together, do those similarly-feathered birds always have the best relationships over the long flight ahead? Recent research on self-control suggests that the answer is both yes and no.
Self-control refers to the deliberate process of suppressing one’s impulses and altering one’s behavior, especially in alignment with social values and expectations. For example, it takes self-control to resist yelling at someone who cuts in line; it takes self-control for a dieter to decline a second piece of cake. Having self-control is important because it keeps us from acting on unwanted or undesirable impulses so that we can achieve some other goal (e.g., maintaining social harmony or losing weight). The ability to exercise self-control might depend on temporary circumstances, such as how much self-control you’ve recently exerted;1,2 however, some people are just naturally better at regulating their emotions and behaviors overall, meaning they have high dispositional (“trait”) self-control.
The Value of Self-Control
Having adequate trait self-control is good, because it helps us meet personal goals, persist on difficult tasks, avoid harm, and function as socially competent beings (e.g., by following norms for public behavior). Given the positive outcomes of self-control for individual success and general interpersonal functioning,3 recent research has begun to examine how self-control operates in romantic relationships. Self-control appears to be similarly beneficial in this domain: for instance, having high self-control underlies one’s ability to keep promises, a behavior that may foster trust between partners.4 High self-control in relationships would seem to discourage interpersonal problems, such as attentiveness to alternative partners, which may lead to lower relationship satisfaction and extra-relationship affairs.5 Perhaps if people like Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton and higher self-control, they would have stayed faithful in their relationships—and avoided significant public embarrassment.
While self-control appears to promote high-quality relationships, the question remains of how both partners’ self-control abilities interact together. That is, should you seek a partner who has a level of self-control similar to your own, along the lines of the conventional “likes attract” mentality? Or is matching on this particular domain overrated?
It Takes Two to Tango
According to findings by Vohs and colleagues,6 self-control similarity between partners is not necessarily the key to relationship success; in fact, in some circumstances it may be detrimental. In the study, heterosexual dating and newlywed partners independently completed questionnaires assessing their trait self-control, relationship satisfaction, relationship behaviors (e.g., forgiveness; frequency of conflict), and perceptions of one’s partner (e.g., extent to which partners were perceived as responsive and attentive to one’s needs). The authors found that the combined self-control ability of relationship partners has an additive effect on relationship outcomes; that is, the sum of partners’ self-control abilities, rather then their similarity on this dimension, best predicts relationship quality.
...one partner’s ability to self-regulate may buffer against the negative tendencies (e.g., impulsiveness; poor managing of emotions) that individuals less skilled in self-control tend to be at risk for experiencing...
Given this additive effect, self-control similarity was beneficial when both couple members scored high: such partnerships were marked by high relationship satisfaction, secure attachment, smooth daily interactions, committed styles of loving, more forgiveness, less conflict, and fewer feelings of rejection. These positive outcomes are likely a function of being more accommodating and demonstrate more positive interaction styles in the face of relationship stress.6,7
The authors acknowledge that slight discrepancies in partners’ self-control can still produce the benefits observed in high-high pairings, provided that the overall self-control in the relationship remains relatively high (e.g., one partner with extremely high self-control and the other average). This caveat undermines the power of similarity in predicting happy relationships, as one partner’s ability to self-regulate may buffer against the negative tendencies (e.g., impulsiveness; poor managing of emotions) that individuals less skilled in self-control tend to be at risk for experiencing. In alignment with findings from a previous article on partner attachment styles, this research on self-control suggests that the interplay of partners’ traits may be more predictive of their relationship functioning than the characteristics of each person individually.
Given that “more is better” when it comes to self-control in relationships, it is no surprise that relationships in which both partners had low self-control fared worst of all, despite the fact that partners were similar on this domain. The poor relationship outcomes for partners with low combined self-control further challenge the assumption that individuals similar in every way will experience the most optimal relationships.
In broad terms, this research suggests that similarity to one’s partner is constructive for relationships only in regards to positive traits, such as high self-control. For characteristics associated with diminished relationship quality, like low self-control, similarity may magnify the negative aspects of those characteristics—and ultimately make for rocky relationships.
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1Baumeister, R. F., & Alquist, J. L. (2009). Self-regulation as a limited resource: Strength model of control and depletion. In J. P. Forgas, R. F. Baumeister, D. M. Tice (Eds.), Psychology of self-regulation: Cognitive, affective, and motivational processes (pp. 21-33). New York, NY US: Psychology Press.
2Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 2, 247-259. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.126.2.247
3Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 2, 271-322. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3506.2004.00263.
4Peetz, 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, 5, 887-904. doi:10.1037/a0021857
5Miller, R.S. (1997). Inattentive and contented: Relationship commitment and attention to alternatives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 758-766.
6Vohs, K. D., Finkenauer, C., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011). The sum of friends’ and lovers’ self-control scores predicts relationship quality. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 138-145. doi:10.1177/1948550610385710
7Finkel, E. J., & Campbell, W. (2001). Self-control and accommodation in close relationships: An interdependence analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 263-277. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.523
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.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.