We’ve all been told that romantic relationships require sacrifice, and most of us can probably think of times when we’ve tried to heed this advice. Perhaps you saw the foreign film your partner wanted to see instead of the comedy you’d been looking forward to, or maybe you skipped a bike ride with friends because your partner asked for help with errands.
But new research suggests that it’s not just whether we sacrifice but why we do so that affects the length and quality of our relationships.
Researchers from San Francisco State University and the University of California, Los Angeles, have distinguished between sacrifices made with “approach motives,” where the goal is to obtain positive results, such as making your partner happy or increasing intimacy between the two of you, and sacrifices made with “avoidance motives,” where the goal is to avoid conflict, guilty feelings, or other negative outcomes. In a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Emily Impett and her colleagues asked college students in dating relationships to complete a daily survey about their sacrifices, emotions, and relationship quality over two weeks. They found that daily sacrifices made with approach motives were associated with daily increases in positive emotions, life satisfaction, and relationship quality, and with the likelihood of being together one month later. On the other hand, sacrifices made with avoidance motives were associated with increases in daily negative emotions, decreases in life and relationship satisfaction, and an increased likelihood of breaking up.
Because the participants in this study were students who had not made any major sacrifices for each other (e.g., relocating for a partner’s job), it is difficult to know how these findings might generalize to married or committed couples. Nonetheless, the findings challenge the simplistic notion that sacrifice is always a good thing for relationships; instead, it suggests that there are good and bad kinds of sacrifice.
In an interview, Impett said she hopes her findings can prove instructive to therapists working with couples. “Our research suggests that couples may benefit from turning their problems into opportunities,” she said. “Attempts to reduce conflict, for example, can be transformed into opportunities to communicate more peacefully. Attempts to avoid break-up or divorce can be turned into opportunities to create fulfilling and long-lasting partnerships.”