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I Would Do Anything for Love, but I Don’t Have…Self-Control

Though partners in satisfying relationships tend to be similar to one another, they rarely agree on everything. Sure, not every couple has heated arguments, but everyone experiences at least smaller conflicts from time to time. Picture the following scenario: It’s a mundane Tuesday night, you and your partner have just finished warming up leftover pizza, and the two of you plop down on the couch to watch some mindless TV. (Surely this doesn’t just describe my marriage, does it?) You’ve had a long day at the office, but your favorite TV show is about to come on. But then your partner mentions that he wants to watch a different show that comes on at the same time. One option is to tell him to go to the other room to watch his stupid show, but that would mean you wouldn’t be spending any time with him. Another option is to sacrifice, whereby you give up your preferred programming for the sake of your partner’s preferred show. Whether or not you are willing to sacrifice may depend on how much self-control you have at your disposal. In other words, do you have enough willpower to make this sacrifice?

Self-control is a limited resource,1 meaning that when we control our impulses on one task, we are less able to exert self-control on subsequent tasks. If you force yourself to get up early and go for a morning run (thereby controlling the impulse to sleep in), you may be more likely to give in to culinary temptation later in the day (deep-fried Oreos? Yes, please!). When sacrificing for your partner, you intentionally (and by definition) give up something you desire, which should require self-control.

Researchers recently tested the idea that sacrificing requires self-control.2 They predicted that individuals with lower levels of self-control would sacrifice less often for their partners. In one study, college students completed a brief questionnaire that assessed how much self-control they normally possess (for example, “I am good at resisting temptations,” “I wish I had more self-discipline”). The students next read 12 hypothetical scenarios depicting potential conflict in their relationships (e.g., “Imagine your partner requests you take him/her to the airport at an inconvenient time”) and indicated how willing they would be to sacrifice in each situation. As predicted, the college students who reported having more self-control also were more willing to make the various sacrifices.

Of course, correlation does not equate to causation: just as it could be the case that having self-control causes individuals to be more willing to sacrifice, it is just as plausible that sacrificing instills people with a sense of accomplishment that ultimately gives them more self-control down the road. To test these competing interpretations, the researchers conducted a follow-up study that experimentally manipulated participants’ self-control level. Fifty-nine college students first listed any thoughts that came to mind. Half of the participants completed the task with no further instructions (the control group), but the other half of participants (the experimental group) were instructed to not think of a white bear during the task. Why did they give the experimental group these instructions? Well, what happens when I tell you not to think of a white bear? Exactly – a white bear pops into your mind! The experimental group now has to spend energy ignoring the white bear that keeps popping into their mind, and redirecting attention requires self-control. After this task, all participants read the same hypothetical scenarios as in the previous study and reported willingness to sacrifice. Again, as predicted, participants who had just exerted self-control to direct their attention away from the white bear (and therefore had less self-control to use on the next tasks) were less willing to sacrifice than were participants who were allowed to complete the thought-listing task normally.

These studies shed light on an important process. Although we likely love our partners and want them to be happy, putting their concerns ahead of our own isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Sacrifices require us to willingly give up our own desires, and if we have just been controlling our impulses elsewhere, we are less likely to put our partners’ desires first. Encouragingly, though, our ability to exert self-control works likes a muscle, such that the more often we use it, the stronger it eventually becomes. Thus, the take-home point is not to avoid sacrificing altogether, but rather to consider sacrificing more frequently (perhaps for the smaller conflicts) so that you will be better able and willing to sacrifice when it really matters.

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1Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

2Findley, M. B., Carvallo, M., & Bartak, C. (in press). The effect of self-control on willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Self and Identity.

Dr. Brent Mattingly - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly's research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.

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