Self-control is a necessary trait to have; it helps us to resist our impulses and prevents us from making decisions that could get us in trouble. Self-control in relationships is just as necessary as in other areas of life, as demonstrating self-control keeps relationships strong in the face of challenges.
Despite its importance, it is not always easy to know how to have self-control in a relationship. When feelings and romantic desire are involved, we may act rashly and do things that could hurt our partner.
So, what does it mean to have self-control in a relationship? Some examples of self-control include refraining from cheating, holding back from saying things you don’t mean when angry, and consulting your significant other before making decisions like purchasing a new car or making a career change.
Having self-control in your relationship also means making sacrifices for your partner. For instance, instead of going out with friends every weekend, you’re willing to set aside time for date nights.
Essentially, you consider your partner’s feelings before making decisions instead of simply acting independently.
Why is self-control in relationships difficult?
In a long-term relationship, self-control is difficult, because it requires us to make a choice, day in and day out, to honor our partner. At the moment, choices that provide instant gratification can feel good, so it can be challenging to practice self-control, especially when we have been with our partner.
Learning how to have self-control in a relationship is also tricky because it requires us to be primarily selfless. Instead of making decisions based on what benefits us, we have to make choices to make our partner happy and prevent them from being hurt.
Having self-control also requires a certain degree of maturity. If you don’t have much experience with long-term relationships, practicing self-control will be incredibly challenging because you won’t be accustomed to setting aside your preferences for the good of the relationship.
What are 4 types of self-control?
Self-control psychology has described four different types of self-control. During moments of frustration, anger, or hurt, or when required to delay gratification, people can demonstrate one or all of the following forms of self-control:
1. Physical movement
As the name might suggest, this form of self-control refers to exercising control over bodily movement. This could involve making the decision to follow an exercise regimen, or choosing to get up off the couch and do the dishes when you promised your partner you’d handle this chore.
2. Emotional control
Emotional self-control refers to the ability to handle frustration, criticism, or other upsetting emotions without lashing out or blaming other people. Controlling emotions in relationships means you can express yourself effectively without being overcome by intense feelings.
A person who has difficulty with emotional self-control in relationships may engage in name-calling during disagreements with their partner, or they may be easily triggered and begin yelling, screaming, or otherwise lashing out when their feelings are hurt or when they feel strongly about something.
One of the ways to practice self-control within your relationship is to demonstrate concentration. This form of self-control requires you to focus on the relationship, which involves putting consistent time, energy, and effort into making things work.
You’ll stay committed to the relationship when you show concentration, even when things get tough. Furthermore, you continue to put your partner first and prioritize your goals for the relationship, even when you’ve been together for years. The initial excitement of a new romance wears off.
4. Impulse Control
Controlling your impulses means resisting the urge to obtain instant gratification. People with strong impulse control can pass on something that will cause temporary pleasure because they recognize that self-control results in long-term benefits.
In a relationship, having impulse control means that you can pass up the instant gratification that would come from cheating because you recognize that you get more out of having a loving, faithful relationship than you would out of the temporary pleasure from sex with someone new.
Learn more about the four types of self-control here:
How self-control affects relationships
It is pretty evident that learning how to work on self-control is beneficial for a relationship. It prevents you from acting upon impulses that could hurt your partner, and it helps you stay focused on the relationship.
Knowing how to be in control in a relationship also benefits your conflict-resolution skills. When you can manage your emotions, you’re less likely to lash out in anger at your partner and say something that you don’t mean.
Having self-control is so beneficial that studies have supported just how meaningful it is in a relationship. According to one recent study, people who show self-control in relationships are more likely to be forgiving toward their partners.
People who know ways to practice self-control have also been more likely to seek stable, long-term relationships than short-term sexual relationships. It can be concluded that having self-control leads to commitment within relationships, making partners more likely to stay together through the ups and downs of life.
How to have self-control in a relationship: 15 strategies
If you’re having relationship difficulties and you realize, “I have no self-control!” the good news is that you can learn ways to practice self-control. Consider the strategies below.
1. Be in a relationship with someone you care about
It may seem like common sense, but choosing someone you want to be with goes a long way toward developing self-control. If you can’t help but ask, “Why do I lack self-control? It could be that you are dating the wrong people.
You’ll find that it’s easier to exercise self-control in a relationship when you’re dating someone you care deeply for rather than someone you’re just settling for. Resist the urge to date, and wait until you find someone you truly want to be with for the long term.
You’ll have an easier time utilizing self-control to stay committed to the relationship if you think about the long-term goals you’ve set together. Maybe you’d like to get a house together by a certain date or establish a family within three years.
Set goals together, and you’ll have a reason to prioritize the relationship.
There is truth to the saying that “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Establish discipline in other areas of life, which will translate to your relationship.
Set a routine of going to the gym regularly or setting aside time to work toward a new goal. This will make discipline a habit within your daily life, including in your relationship.
4. Manage your stress
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’ll be more likely to seek out instant gratification as a way to soothe yourself. Managing your stress is perhaps one of the best self-control tips there is.
Research has shown that stress could lead to difficulty with self-control in relationships, especially among people who are sleep deprived. Improve your self-control by setting a regular sleep schedule and taking time for stress management.
5. Keep an open line of communication with your partner
Part of knowing how to have self-control in a relationship is understanding your partner’s needs to prioritize them. This requires you to have open communication with your partner.
If you don’t communicate with each other about your expectations, it is impossible to prioritize. Staying on the same page goes a long way toward making self-control possible.
Perhaps the biggest sign of a lack of self-control in relationships is being unable to remain faithful to your partner. Often, this comes from a strong need for external validation.
When you step outside your relationship for sex, you need validation because of underlying low self-esteem. Work on elevating your self-esteem by focusing on your strengths or setting new goals, so you don’t feel tempted to fill a void with an affair.
Self-control psychology includes the concept of ego depletion, which states that we only have so much self-control available to us, and it becomes depleted. If you think about using self-control in every situation within your relationship for the rest of your life, you may become overwhelmed.
Instead, focus on living in the present. When faced with a situation that tempts you, use some self-control tips to overcome it. Focus on doing the right thing at that moment rather than worrying about the future.
9. Have check-ins with yourself
One of the ways to practice self-control is to monitor your behavior and check-in with yourself. This might mean making a mental note of times you met your partner’s needs or whether you were fair to them throughout the week.
If you are struggling with practicing self-control, you might consider journaling to help you document times you struggled and times you were able to choose self-control over instant gratification.
10. Set specific goals to motivate you
It is hard to work toward goals if you don’t know exactly what you’re aiming for. To help you establish self-control in your relationship, set a specific goal: “I will set aside my desires to make my partner happy twice per week.”
Having a specific goal in mind allows you to measure your success and progress toward goal attainment.
11. Avoid sexual temptation
People often ask how to have self-control sexually in a relationship. If this is the case for you, it’s time to learn what makes you feel tempted, and avoid these triggers.
Maybe going out to the bar or spending time browsing Instagram photos leads to sexual temptation for you. Whatever it is, eliminating these triggers is a great way to exercise self-control.
In any given moment, you might be tempted to give in to an impulse that will negatively affect your relationship. When this moment strikes, take some time to think about the consequences. Is staying out two hours later than expected worth upsetting your partner? It probably isn’t.
13. Create a plan
Over the course of a long-term relationship, there will be times when you are faced with a decision that might test your self-control. Plan ahead for situations when you might be tempted notto put your partner first.
For example, if it’s your partner’s birthday weekend and a friend asks you to go to a concert or away for a trip that you’ve always wanted to take, think about how you’ll respond.
14. Know when you need to cool off
We’ve all become heated during an argument, and when emotions are strong, it is easy to get carried away and say something hurtful.
Think about the times you’ve let your emotions get the best of you. How did you know you were losing control? Maybe your heart started to race, or you could feel the temperature rising in your body.
Whatever it was, learn to recognize these signs in yourself and table the conversation until you are calm enough to have a conversation while still controlling your emotions.
15. Ensure that you’re expressing your needs
When someone struggles with the thought of, “I have no self control!” the problem might be that they aren’t expressing their needs. People can feel hurt and lash out at their partner when their needs aren’t met.
If you aren’t having your needs met and leading to a lack of self-control, take some time to reflect. It is possible that you aren’t telling your partner what you need. Having a conversation can get the two of you on the same page and make it easier for you to meet your needs and manage your emotions.
Tips for self-control can help you to develop this skill so that you can have a happier, stronger relationship. If you still can’t figure out how to have self-control, you may benefit from working with a counselor or therapist.
During therapy sessions, you can learn strategies for having self-control in a relationship. Your therapist will work with you to help you develop coping skills and overcome underlying issues that may be contributing to poor impulse control and emotional regulation.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.