Willpower is often associated with depriving yourself of a perceived vice. The more willpower you have the more easily you’ll be able to complete, say, meatless Monday or dry January.
Having more willpower doesn’t only affect how much you’re able to abstain from an activity, though. It also affects how much energy you have to give to certain activities, says Veronika Job, a motivational psychology professor at the University of Vienna who studies willpower.
In a romantic partnership, this comes into play often. If your partner had an overwhelming day at work and forgot to pay a bill or do the dishes, how you respond reflects the amount of willpower you have, Job says.
It determines whether you are both understanding of their mistake and able to offer them support.
Limited versus non-limited willpower
In regards to willpower, there are two categories which most people fall into:
- Limited: Those who believe challenging situations deplete them of self-control.
- Non-limited: Those who believe challenging situations fuel them to resist temptation even more.
How you view yourself directly affects how much willpower you end up having, Job found in her research. If you have a “limited” view of your own will power, your actions generally reflect that. If you feel you have “non-limited” or unlimited willpower, the same applies.
In relationships, this perspective reveals itself in surprising ways.
‘Non-limited theorists showed better outcomes’
Those who are “limited theorists,” as Job calls them, are more empathetic if their partner makes a mistake. They are also unable to offer support.
“They are more understanding but it’s canceled out because their own fatigue makes it harder for them to be actively positive in relationships,” she says.
On the other hand, “non-limited theorists,” aren’t as understanding, but also tend to feel less depleted by their day and are able to offer support to their partner.
“In all relationships studies, in the end, it was always non-limited theorists who showed better outcomes,” Job says. “The energy they have compensates for their lack of understanding.”
If you identify as a limited theorist, there is no “silver bullet” that can transform you into a non-limited one, Job says.
But by understanding your own willpower, you can manage your partner’s expectations along with your own.