If You Believe Willpower Is Limited, You’re Less Likely to Help Your Partner

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At this point in my life, I’ve dated quite a lot. Some of those experiences were great and others… well, not so much.

Plenty of course fell in between.

One thing I’ve found that people vary wildly on is their willingness to offer support to their partners. Some people I’ve dated seemed to thrive on findings ways to support me, whether that was through helping me out with unpleasant tasks or emotional support.

Others acted like their giving any support at all would be a huge burden imposed on them. It didn’t matter how many times had supported them — or how rotten my day, week, or month had been.

They just weren’t willing. And not only weren’t they willing, but some even told me that supporting your partner isn’t what romantic relationships are even about. (Of course they told me this while they were accepting huge amounts of support from me. But they weren’t fussed by that disconnect.)

Anyway, I found a recent study interesting because of this.

If You Believe Willpower Is Limited, You’re Less Likely to Help Your Partner

When it comes to willpower, people vary in their beliefs about it. Some people really do view willpower as a limited resource, believing that if you exert mental effort, your resources will exhaust, and you will effectively run out. The study we’re looking at today calls these people “limited willpower theorists.”

But not everyone believes this actually. And there are also people who believe that exerting effort doesn’t deplete your energy but actually primes you for future exertion. That in a sense it can keep you in mental fighting shape. Somewhat predictably, today’s study calls these folks “nonlimited willpower theorists.”

It’s easy to keep straight at least.

Anyway, they looked at how these beliefs can play out in our romantic relationships and found something that was to me quite interesting: Limited willpower theorists not only reported their partners as more tired but also had lower intent to support their (apparently very tired) partners.

Or in other words, believing willpower was limited made people less likely to provide their partners support.

The researchers did control for possible confounding variables including personality traits, attachment style, self-control measures, and reported level of empathy towards partner.

However, they do caution about the fact that the study is correlative, and no experimental manipulation was performed. Therefore, it’s only about a link. Not an absolute cause or explanation.

Additionally, in only interviewing one half of the these partnerships, they were unable to ascertain whether the participants’ reporting was correct or to tell whether their partners actually feel less supported.

Still, the link they found is interesting.

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On a side note, strictly anecdotally, if I look at the least supportive partners I’ve had, they did indeed have limited willpower beliefs. And looking at the most supportive partners I’ve had, they definitely didn’t.

That’s not scientific at all. But it does make me wonder if maybe there’s something there.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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