06/28/2013 07:04 pm ET

Less Self Control Can Mean Sacrificing More For Your Partner, Study Finds


Relationships are supposedly all about compromise and the situations that can require a little give and take are endless. Whose friends are you going to dinner with tonight? Which movie are you going to see tomorrow? Are you willing to cancel that thing you really wanted to do this weekend because your partner needs you to be somewhere else?

New research suggests that how much you're willing to sacrifice in your close relationships may actually be tied to your own level of self-control -- and contrary to conventional wisdom, it's the more impulsive among us who tend to put others first.

Researchers from VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Northwestern University sought to challenge the notion that the first impulse in relationships is to be selfish. They set up several experiments to test what happens to a person's willingness to sacrifice for their partner when their impulse control is already taxed. In one test, for example, challenging participants' impulse control meant telling them to ignore flashing words on a screen during a video. Another involved putting time pressure on the need to make a decision.

The findings, which were published in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that when it comes to self-control, having less of it can actually mean giving more.

"When people are low in self-control, they don't want to put up a fight if it's not something meaningful to be fought for," said Francesca Righetti of VU University Amsterdam, lead author of the study.

In one experiment, the participants had to divvy up the embarrassing task of asking 12 strangers if they were dressed appropriately for a job interview (they didn't end up having to complete the task). Those who had their self-control stressed agreed to approach a greater number of strangers themselves, sparing their partners the potentially awkward conversation.

But the group whose self-control hadn't been manipulated? They split the number of people they planned to interact with right down the middle: six for them, and six for their loved one. When the researchers evaluated another groups' impulsiveness in terms of a personality trait and compared it to how much they sacrifice for their partner, the correlation still held up.

Those with high self-control on the other hand, Righetti explained, tend to err on the side of preserving their own interests.

"When people think about their decisions, they take into consideration multiple pieces of information. They start thinking, is this sacrifice necessary or would the partner do it for me? Am I giving too much in this relationship?" said Righetti. "When they start considering this decision, they correct and decide to be more concerned about their own goals and their own needs."

Righetti noted that the studies only measured sacrifice in terms of small-ticket decisions. When it comes to giving up something more significant for your partner -- like a job or moving across the country -- it's less clear how impulse levels affect how much a person is willing to give.

The other catch is that putting your partner's feelings ahead of your own is not necessarily better for your relationship. Righetti noted that previous research has found that people tend to be more satisfied in relationships where they balance tending to their own needs and tending those of their loved ones.

"It might be that people who have high self control, they just pay attention not to neglect the self," she said.