Of course, Tom is real, whereas these studies are made up in the lab. To bring their inquiry closer to the real-life Tom Gordons of the world, Fitzsimons and her team decided to study actual romantic relationships. They evaluated more than 100 couples—both partners—on their self-control and their dependence on their partner. By dependence, they meant: “To what extent is your partner, and only your partner, able to fulfill your needs?”
The findings reinforced the lab results. As described in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, those volunteers with low self-control were more dependent on their partner—they felt the relationship was essential to their personal well-being—but only when their partner was highly disciplined. Those who were themselves disciplined showed no differences in their emotional dependence. They apparently did not have the same powerful need for a partner who would make up for their own impulsiveness.
Taken together, these experiments offer evidence for a social self-regulatory process by which we become close to others to compensate for our flaws. These scientists are not suggesting that such reliance on others can or will trump impulsiveness, not entirely. Indeed, overwhelming evidence points to the opposite—that self-control deficits are very difficult to overcome and that such traits often lead to less fulfilling and less successful lives. Yet these findings do at least raise the hope that people who are naturally impulsive might play an active role in overcoming their own weaknesses—rather than just accepting their unhappy fate.
This article was originally published with the title Finding Self-Discipline in Others.