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Psychological energy, relationships, and knowing your thresholds

AlethiaBy Jacob Wackerhausen,

Do you feel stretched, exhausted, or easily irritated in your relationships? You might be low on “psychological energy.” Each of us wakes up with some energy to face the day—physical energy, spiritual energy, emotional energy, and other kinds. I won’t break these down individually. Instead, I’ll lump them all into psychological energy. Psychological energy refers to the holistic expenditure options that we have in life.

So, what is psychological energy, and why is it so important to know your limits?

What is psychological energy?

This energy is a helpful tool to understand why you’re excited to do something one day but another day, the same activity feels exhausting. There are a few components to understanding psychological energy.

1.    We spend energy on most activities

We spend psychological energy when we choose an activity (mental or physical) to do something, experience something, or even feel something. Typically, it is an automatic expenditure. We expend the energy to go to the store, fill out a boring Excel spreadsheet, or walk the dog. We commonly trade this energy in at work, but it can also be traded in our relationships. It takes energy to engage with someone, change a diaper, or mow the lawn.

2.    Some activities fill up our tanks

When something “comes naturally” to us, that’s usually a way of saying that it costs us little or no psychological energy. When we enjoy something, it may be a way of saying it adds to our tank. On the flip side, when we interact with things or people who are annoying, it takes more out of us. It’s not a bad thing to spend energy. We all do it all day, every day, spending and gaining varying amounts of this energy. Jobs, chores, or social events can drain you, but fun interactions, coffee, petting a dog, introverted time, physical affection, and other things can return it.

3.    Some activities are an investment

Some activities simultaneously cost and add energy. These are investments. Exercise is a great example. It costs me psychological energy to work out, run, or almost anything else boring and physical. Man, if I can avoid it, I do. I have to decide to spend the points. But an interesting effect often emerges. It may cost me ten points of my overall energy to get on that elliptical, and I step off an hour later, physically tired and sweaty but with twenty points more energy than I started with. If I was down to twenty points before my evening workout, I would get done and now have thirty points. But getting the payoff takes an up-front investment.

4.    We don’t start the day with the same amount

If there were some way to measure this energy, we wouldn’t start with the same amount each morning. Temperament, health, attitude, and many more elements are all factors. And, of course, every day, we wake up with different levels in our tanks. If I get crappy sleep the night before, it’ll affect the amount of energy I wake up with. Loads of financial debt could affect your energy by weighing you down. If you’re depressed, that will undoubtedly affect your energy levels.

Although there are a few things to remember about psychological energy, most people intuitively understand the idea. So, how can it help in our daily lives?

How psychological energy helps your relationships

Of course, there are so many factors here that it would be impossible to quantify psychological energy. However, once you understand these principles, the conversations they create between close friends, co-workers, family, and couples are super helpful! Here’s some example conversation starters:

  • What taxes your psychological energy?
  • What little things I do or say are energy drains?
  • What little things I do or say add energy?
  • What things come naturally to you?
  • What things are great for giving you psychological energy but cost an initial investment?

We tolerate differences that cause friction between us and other people by spending psychological energy. When we experience discord over temperament differences, different plans, or the need to pick up each other’s slack, we draw on our energy reserves.

A personal example of psychological energy and identity

My wife loves babies. I do, too, but she is at another level. Anything about babies comes naturally to her. Nurturing is wired into her identity. An expression of this is that she loves things made for babies, tiny and cute things. As a pastor, I often get to go to the hospital to help greet a church member’s newborn baby. I love making her jealous by sending her a picture of me holding the infant with proud parents.

For years, I would find a small baby outfit in a grocery bag from her shopping trip. Maybe a onesie, a little infant hat, or tiny socks. I would then gently point out that we didn’t have any babies. She would respond that the outfit was just too cute to pass up! Surely someone has a baby that we could give it to.

When something is integrated into your identity, you need a reason not to do it; you do not need a reason to do it. Apparently, for my wife, not having a baby is not a sufficient reason not to buy baby clothes. Shopping for baby stuff is like a psychological energy drink for her. I like babies, but I hate retail stores. I have about a fifteen-minute headache countdown that starts when those automatic doors slide open. It costs me around twenty psychological energy points to be there longer than fifteen minutes.

So if at the end of an exhausting day I come home, and my wife, who has also had an exhausting day, says, “Hey, the church is hosting a baby shower tomorrow. Want to run with me to the store and buy some baby stuff for the shower?”

We are both near zero. I love my wife and know that spending time with her will be life-giving. Even just a few minutes will improve my attitude and probably even increase my overall psychological energy (seriously, she is that fun and that easy to be around; ask anyone).

However, she wants to go to a store to shop for baby stuff. If she is at zero points, this still sounds good to her. Buying baby clothes costs her zero points and is worth forty in return.

If I have twenty points left, I have a decision to make. Do I invest them in the store, or do I save them for something else? It’s a fair question, and I might decide either way.

However, if I’m at zero, I will likely say (you guessed it): “I would love to, but I just don’t think I can tonight.” Hopefully, she understands. There are many, many other applications of this principle. In my book, Sex and Marriage (which this article was adapted from), I unpack these concepts in terms of sex and romance. If that seems interesting and helpful, I recommend picking up a copy!

For now, just note that just because it takes energy to start something doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. Now, how does psychological energy relate to thresholds?

Thresholds and psychological energy

I’m going to illustrate the threshold principle with a slightly silly example. I’ll call this couple Greg and Sarah.

Greg and Sarah both love spaghetti. They have slightly different tastes on how to prepare it, but they both crave good pasta. In fact, Greg wants spaghetti three times a week (almost qualifying him for a “My Strange Obsession” episode on TLC). If he doesn’t have spaghetti at least twice a week, he’ll get grumpy and seem to experience withdrawals.

Sarah also really, really loves spaghetti. If she doesn’t get it, she’ll feel upset, but she only really craves it once a month or so before she feels bummed.

Then, these two get married. So here’s the question: how often does the wife’s threshold get reached? How often does Sarah get pasta withdrawals?

The answer is never.

You may have been tempted to say once a month; after all, that’s her threshold. But because Sarah married Greg, he always reaches the threshold faster. How likely is it that Greg is going to wait a month before the family eats spaghetti? Not very likely. To Greg, it may seem like Sarah doesn’t have the same cravings that he does.

She does, but not on the same timetable.

Do they both love spaghetti? Yes.

Will Greg be disappointed? Probably sometimes. Making spaghetti for dinner two to three times a week is a lot of work and might get old. His threshold gets hit so quickly that he probably won’t always get the pasta on his timetable.

Tying this in with psychological energy, Greg has to spend some points not eating spaghetti at least three times a week.

Will Sarah be disappointed? Only in that she may become frustrated that Greg doesn’t sufficiently appreciate them having spaghetti once or even twice a week. She may feel like the availability of pasta is never enough for him. Eating spaghetti is always fun for her, too, and Greg is a master at cooking it, but because of the difference in timetables, she will often eat pasta when she would otherwise choose not to.

She will have to spend some psychological energy to make and have spaghetti sometimes, even though she enjoys it. This is an example of when something requires an investment. Even though it’s a refuel, it takes fuel to get there!

Thresholds and psychological energy

In Sex and Marriage, I connect this example to sex, but as I note in the book, it applies in many other places! Consider the example of doing the dishes.

If Sarah begins to feel stressed when the sink is full of dishes for three days, but Greg feels it every two hours, how often will Sarah feel stressed about the dishes? Almost never. Greg is not likely to tolerate the stress of a dirty sink for seventy-two hours, but he might feel frustrated that she “never does them.” In fact, she would do them, but only within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. It never gets to that point before Greg feels bothered enough to clean them. Financial spending, how much time to spend together, risk issues, time with friends, and bed-making are all examples. There are a million tiny instances of how thresholds can affect two people seeking to live their lives together.

However, this concept doesn’t just apply to romantic partnerships. Thresholds can also affect work relationships. If your manager wants a report on a project every few days, but you only feel like it needs a report every month, there will be conflict. That conflict arises from the difference in thresholds.

There are plenty of examples of friendships, too. To feel stable in a friendship, some people need dedicated coffee time or a phone conversation every few weeks. Others can not see their friend for a year and pick right back up where they left off.

Your friend may have a lower threshold for when to apologize, whereas you only feel the need to apologize when something’s gone seriously wrong. This can create tension, but neither person may be right or wrong. The difference in threshold may come from upbringing or personality, but either way, discussing the issue and compromising can easily solve it!

Thresholds and introversion and extroversion

Many people know about psychological energy through discussions about introversion and extroversion. Introverts famously recharge through alone time or hanging out with one close friend. Extroverts recharge through socializing. This can be thought through with thresholds, too.

For some introverts, social gatherings may refill their tank—but it’s an investment. They have to put in 20 points to get 30 points back. If they’re at 5 points, they won’t want to party. On the flip side, extroverts may enjoy alone time, but they need to expend energy to sit in silence, focus, and reflect.

Communicate using psychological energy and thresholds

Of course, it costs us very little psychological energy to operate within our own thresholds—they come naturally. It costs some psychological energy to seek to sacrifice my thresholds to serve someone else by taking their thresholds into account. We can take their thresholds into account in two ways: Doing the thing sooner for them with the lower threshold or waiting for the other person with the higher threshold.

In day-to-day life, consider using this language with your counselor, co-workers, close friends, family, and especially your spouse. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

  • “I’m at my threshold for the dirty laundry pile, and it’s starting to drain me. Would you mind helping me do it?”
  • “Are you low on energy? Maybe we can discuss this later.”
  • “It takes me a lot of energy to come to meetings, and this big project is taking up a lot of my energy already. Is there any way I could skip this week’s tactical meeting?”
  • “A party doesn’t sound appealing. I think I need to recharge first.”
  • “I think we should tighten our budget. I’ve hit the threshold for how low our bank account can get without feeling drained!”

So, thresholds, learned or intrinsic, can explain part of how psychological energy gets spent differently and experienced differently by two people. Hopefully, this communication tool will help you understand yourself and others, explain yourself to others, and communicate effectively.

If you always seem to be running on fumes, consider coming to talk with one of our counselors. You may face low energy from a mental illness like depression or anxiety, or you may need help reorganizing your life in a healthier way. Either way, our qualified team is ready to come alongside you to help you live a freer, more joyful, healthier life.


This article has been adapted from Sex and Marriage, Chris Legg, LPC’s newly released book on romance, biblical marriage, and sex. You can find it on Amazon today. If you liked what you read here, I can guarantee you’ll find the book uplifting, insightful, and encouraging.

Find it on Amazon: Sex and Marriage: Unlocking and Restoring the Power of Sex and Marriage through Biblical and Psychological Insight.