Every couple experiences times in life when sacrifice becomes necessary. Your partner becomes swamped at work, and so you’ve got to pick up the slack at home, taking on extra chores and responsibilities until your partner's workload eases a bit. In the best of all scenarios, the average over time comes out to be roughly equal between give and take. As a result, the next time you face unusual outside pressures, your partner gladly pitches in to allow you to tend to those duties.
What about when the give and take on your side becomes mostly “give”? Does that heavy workload of your partner seem to have no endpoint? Will you be forced to abandon your own desires to continue to provide that strong home base of support? Does this mean you’re being taken advantage of by a partner who views you as a softie?
Partners in romantic relationships make sacrifices for each other all the time without necessarily keeping scorecards of who gives more than the other. The question is whether these uneven contributions that partners make to their relationship are ultimately good or bad for the relationship’s longevity.
According to VU Amsterdam’s Francesca Righetti and colleagues (2020), the previous research literature on sacrifice in relationships indeed is mixed. Sacrifice could theoretically promote a “climate of reciprocal trust and cooperation” but it could also mean that the sacrificers become unhappy because their “goal pursuit activities have been obstructed by their partner” (p. 901). In other words, you could be thwarted in your personal search for fulfillment if you’re always having to give way to your partner’s own fulfillment quest.
Breaking down the concept of relationship sacrifice further, prior researchers make the important distinction between willingness to sacrifice, and the actual, or behavioral, sacrifice itself. You may tell your partner that you don’t mind doing the cooking all week until things ease up at work, but in reality, the situation never materializes.
The second set of distinctions contrasts satisfaction with sacrifice from its costs. You could potentially feel great about sacrificing for the person you love most in the world, never giving the costs a second thought. On the other hand, you could resent being given no choice but to make a sacrifice, focusing on how much it’s preventing you from doing what you’d most like to do.
With this background, the Dutch authors pose what they call the “Benefit Hypothesis,” based on the idea that when couples want what’s best for their relationship, they can undergo a “transformation of motivation” in which they give up their personal motives in favor of those of their partner. According to the Benefit Hypothesis, this transformation of personal wishes serves to improve the quality of the relationship.
Conversely, according to the “Burden Hypothesis,” when people give up their personal needs, they experience a “transactive loss.” In other words, by letting costs outweigh benefits, sacrificers come out on the short end of the deal.
So far, the focus of this background work is on the giver, not the receiver, of the sacrifice. From a dyadic (two-person) perspective, Righetti et al. note the perhaps obvious fact that recipients of the selfless acts of their partners benefit in a practical manner by being able to pursue their own goals without having to balance their taking with any giving. At a deeper level, though, when your partner sacrifices for you, the impact goes further than just the gift of help. Some of these impacts include greater trust in the giving partner, gratitude, and the feeling of being loved. Returning to that intention-behavior distinction, the sacrifice might not even have to occur as long as the recipient felt that the partner was willing to go the extra mile.
Using the powerful procedure of meta-analysis, Righetti and her colleagues obtained a set of 82 separate studies that included measures tapping the four components of sacrifice: willingness, behavior, satisfaction, and costs. Testing that two-way relationship between giving and getting, the Dutch research team contrasted the findings with respect to the sacrifice and recipient, using as outcomes an index of personal well-being and one of relationship well-being. The over 32,000 sample participants represented nine different countries, and one-quarter of the studies included in the analysis followed couples over time. Most of the data available for the analysis came from both members of the couple, and 57 percent of the studies included at least some same-sex couples.
The four facets of sacrifice tapped in all studies included in the analysis are listed here. Thinking now about your own relationship, see how you would rate on each of these:
Willingness to sacrifice: the intention, or the motivation, to sacrifice. Perhaps, due to COVID-19's restrictions on gatherings, you are faced with the choice between spending a holiday with your family vs. spending it with your partner’s (whom you don’t particularly like). Is this something you'd be likely to do, or would you insist on being with your family, or perhaps split up for the day?
Behavioral sacrifice: whether people have actually enacted a sacrifice in their relationship. Did you actually give in and spend time with your partner’s family for that holiday gathering?
Satisfaction with sacrifice: the degree to which people feel a sense of satisfaction in giving up their own goals and preferences for the sake of their partner or relationship. After agreeing to spend your holiday with your partner’s family, would you feel glad that you could make your partner happy?
Costs of sacrifice: the perception of the extent of the costs a sacrifice has entailed for oneself. How much would you feel resentful that you had to give way to your partner’s holiday preferences?
Now ask yourself how you think your partner would feel as a result of your sacrificing. What would be the impact on his or her well-being? Would your partner feel more or less satisfied with your relationship after you’ve made this concession?
Turning now to the findings, the authors report some support for each of the two major approaches to relationship sacrifice. In support of the benefit hypothesis, the two facets of willingness to sacrifice and satisfaction with sacrifice contributed to the personal well-being of both partners. However, partners who engaged in behavioral sacrifice had lower well-being scores. Further supporting the burden hypothesis, the perceived costs of sacrifice were related to poorer well-being in the partner who sacrificed. The costs of sacrifice also related to poorer relationship well-being.
In interpreting these findings, as the Dutch authors point out, there are many reasons that willingness to sacrifice would be related to well-being, for both the individual and the partner. Their findings support the idea that when you say that you’ll make a sacrifice, you communicate to your partner that his or her needs are more important than yours. In turn, your partner will feel more trusting of you, further strengthening his or her own willingness to sacrifice. All of this augers well for the health of the relationship. But there’s a huge “but” that qualifies all of this.
Looking at the burden side of the equation, actually making a sacrifice turns out to be more complicated than the simple intention of giving way to your partner because sacrifices vary in their level of costs. As the authors suggest on the basis of their results, small mundane sacrifices can smoothen interactions and keep the wheels of everyday life running seamlessly. You make that agreement to do the cooking because you don't really mind the extra time in the kitchen. Giving up your holiday may be a medium level sacrifice. Having to relocate for your partner’s job is on a different matter altogether and it's here where the personal sacrifice can really become a burden.
In the words Righetti and her coauthors, “to the extent that people engage in larger sacrifices that entail giving up important preferences and goals, they may be especially likely to experience goal frustration and negative emotions with detrimental consequences for themselves and the relationship” (p. 913). Taking all the results into account, further, the authors conclude that “sacrifice is a double-edged sword that entails both gains and losses” (p. 916).
To sum up, your willingness to sacrifice can communicate a positive message to your partner and can also benefit your well-being. However, before you make that actual sacrifice, consider its effect on your ability to achieve your own life goals and its potential to erode the quality of your relationship. Finding that balance in the “double-edged sword” of sacrifice can help you find both personal and relationship fulfillment in the years to come.