Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When relying on significant others backfires

When you are trying to achieve a difficult goal, it is common to engage the people close to you for help.  Romantic partners are often an important source of support in cases like this.  A romantic partner can provide encouragement to help with an important goal and can serve as a cheerleader when you find your motivation flagging.
An interesting paper in the March, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Grainne Fitzsimons and Eli Finkel suggests that this reliance can sometimes backfire.  In particular, if you come to rely on your romantic partner for support, you may sometimes exert less of your own self-control. 
In one study, women were asked to write about how much their partner helped them achieved their goals to stay healthy and keep fit.  A second group wrote about how their partner helped them achieved their career goals.  A third group wrote about a positive characteristic of their partner. After the writing task, participants expressed how much time they planned to devote to pursuing activities relating to health and fitness in the upcoming week.   
The women who wrote about how much their partner helps with their health and fitness goals said that they would devote much less time in the coming week to this goal than the women in the other two groups.   The more committed that women were to their relationship with their partner, the more that writing about their partner’s help decreased the amount of time they would commit to health and fitness in the next week. 
In another study, a group of male and female students wrote about their partner’s help pursuing their academic goals.   Other groups wrote about a partner’s good characteristics or their partner’s help with the goal of having fun.  Later, participants had the chance to perform two tasks. The main task was an academic preparation task that they were told would help them to study for future tests.  The second was a set of fun word problems.  They were told that doing the fun problems would be enjoyable, but would make the second academic preparation task less effective.
Participants who wrote about their partner’s help with their academic goals spent more time doing the fun problems than those in the other two groups.  That is, those people who thought about how much their partner helps with academic success actually exhibited less self-control than those who thought about other characteristics of their partner.
These results suggest that people in close relationships come to rely on their partners for help pursuing important goals.  This reliance is probably helpful in the long-run, because the partner provides much-needed support.  However, this support comes at a cost.  When put in situations that rely on self-control when their partner is not around, people may have less willingness to exert their own self-control than they might if they did not have a supportive partner.
Over time, then, if you are in a committed relationship, you and your partner may form a unit that acts effectively together.  However, if you find yourself having to commit to your goals when your partner is not around, you may find it difficult to do so. 
However, these results are strongest when you think specifically about the way your partner has helped you in the past.  So, if you are in a committed relationship and you find your self-control flagging, think about the general positive characteristics of your partner rather the ways your partner helps you achieve your goals.  That shift in focus should help you maintain your focus on your goals.