Your spouse comes home from work and excitedly tells you that she just was offered a promotion—in another state. Do you quit your job and move away from your family to an unknown city so that she can pursue her career ambitions? Should you?
Close relationships require sacrifice. In fact, many people include sacrificing in the very definition of what it means to truly love another person—and indeed, research has shown that couples are happier and more likely to remain in their relationships if the partners are willing to sacrifice for each other. Sometimes that sacrifice can be life-changing, such as deciding to move to a different state in order to be with your partner; other times it might be something small and seemingly mundane, such as seeing an action movie instead of the comedy you would have chosen.
Although sacrifice may be inevitable, when the time comes to do it, it’s not always easy. I often find myself weighing my need to be true to myself—why should I be the one giving up what I want?—against my desire to be a good partner and do what it takes to make my relationship work—if this is important to him, I should be supportive.
Sacrifice also raises questions of power: If you are happy to sacrifice early in the relationship and your partner isn’t reciprocating, you may find yourself in a situation where you are the one who is always expected to give up and give in. Over time this imbalanced pattern of sacrifice may lead to an imbalance of power in your relationship—a recipe for long-term unhappiness and resentment.
In short, research by social psychologists such as Emily Impett, Paul Van Lange, and Caryl Rusbult suggests that sacrificing for someone you love may show them you care and may even make you feel good about yourself. But their studies also reveal that if you find yourself always being the one who sacrifices—or if you feel forced to make a sacrifice—then you should tread with caution. Based on this research, I offer seven questions you may want to ask yourself when deciding whether or not a sacrifice is worth it.
1. How committed are you? Is this the person you plan to spend forever with, or do you still harbor reservations? According to Van Lange, commitment may be one of the most important precursors to sacrifice. In order for a big sacrifice to be worth it, you should make sure that you are invested in the relationship and confident about your future together. Nothing is certain, of course, but a sacrifice becomes much more palatable when it helps bring you closer to the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.
2. Would your partner do the same for you? Sacrifice is two-sided: While you are deciding whether or not to move across the country to let your spouse take his promotion, your spouse must decide whether or not to sacrifice his promotion in order to let you keep your job. So as you debate whether or not to make a sacrifice, research by Van Lange and colleagues suggests it’s important to question whether your partner has shown the same degree of commitment and is now going through the same thought process. Has your partner been willing to sacrifice for you in the past, or expressed his willingness to sacrifice in the future? In the current situation, are you working together to figure out what is best, or does your partner simply expect you to change your life to accommodate his? If your partner assumes that you are the one who must choose to sacrifice, without assuming any of the same responsibility on his end, think twice.
3. Does one of you want it more? When a situation requires sacrifice from you or your partner, the two of you may not be equally invested in the outcome. Perhaps your partner really wants to attend her family reunion, and although you don’t relish missing your work event, you know your co-workers will understand, and the family reunion is a one-time thing. As you navigate the situation, make sure you are both clear about your own desires and priorities.
4. Does your partner know it’s a sacrifice? There is no need to rub your potential sacrifice in your partner’s face, or use it against them, but if your partner isn’t aware that you consider your act to be a sacrifice, they won’t be able to appreciate your selflessness. In addition, by not realizing that you are incurring a cost for the sake of the relationship, your partner might not understand when you want her to return the favor the next time a sacrifice is called for. Finally, it is important to know if your partner disagrees with you and does not see your actions as a sacrifice. Has your partner expressed thanks for your willingness to sacrifice? Research I’ve done with Emily Impett suggests expressing gratitude shows recognition of a sacrifice. If you haven’t received a “thank you,” your partner may be taking you for granted.
5. Is there a better solution? Rather than simply trying to pick through the choices at hand, you should be working with your partner to see if there is a solution that doesn’t require much of a sacrifice from either of you. If your partner wants you to go on a tropical vacation and you really want to take in the architecture of ancient cities, perhaps a little research will uncover a place where you can do both. This isn’t always an option, of course, but even in situations in which there is no clear compromise, there may be a way to reduce the impact of the sacrifice.
6. Can you negotiate? Although close relationships require that you give when giving is needed, it doesn’t mean you and your partner can’t make an arrangement that suits both of you. For example, you can work it out so that you eat at the restaurant you want, and go to the movie your partner wants to see. This may even work for the bigger sacrifices. You could make the move to the new city, but agree that there will be money set aside in a travel budget so that you can fly home to visit your family some number of times a year.
7. What’s your motivation? In many respects, this is the most important question you need to ask yourself. Research shows that people engage in sacrifice for many different reasons, and not all of them lead to happily ever after.
Are you moving cross-country to make your partner happy and keep your relationship going—or are you simply trying to avoid conflict? Sacrifices motivated by avoidance can undermine happiness and satisfaction in a relationship. If you sacrifice to avoid conflict, you might think, Well, I might feel bad, but at least we won’t fight and our relationship won’t suffer. It turns out that is not the case: Recent research by Emily Impett shows that when people believe their partner sacrificed for what psychology calls “avoidance-motivated” reasons, they feel less satisfied with the relationship.
There is an alternative: When you sacrifice to make your partner happy, that can potentially increase trust and happiness. People who sacrifice for “approach-motivated” reasons—for long-term collective gain as a couple or to help fulfill your partner’s dreams—tend to be happier and have more satisfying relationships.
Although sacrificing to make a partner happy can be a good thing, it may be trouble if you find yourself constantly sacrificing out of a desire to be the “good” partner and satisfy your partner at the cost of your own happiness. People who consistently prioritize other’s needs above their own—a situation known as “unmitigated communion”—can pay a cost in self-esteem and mental health over the long run. Sacrifice is a hallmark of a close relationship, but it should not lead to neglecting your own needs.
Along similar lines, you should ask yourself whether your sacrifice was motivated by a desire to help your partner—or to hold the sacrifice over your partner’s head. Psychologist Aleksandr Kogan has shown that genuine helping is healthy, but using sacrifice as a bargaining chip in your relationship may lead to resentment from your partner.
In addition, although there is nothing wrong with negotiating with your partner, choosing to make a sacrifice and then silently expecting your partner to take the fall the next time may mean disappointment for both of you. In close relationships, people typically hold mutual expectations—they believe their partner will help them when they need it and sacrifice without expecting to be paid back in kind.
In fact, studies show that people can become upset when a close partner does try to pay them back in kind. So your partner may be disheartened to learn that you sacrificed only to ensure that he would have to sacrifice for you—perhaps because it makes your romantic relationship feel like a series of economic transactions.
Relationships require sacrifice, but we shouldn’t give up or give in without thinking it through. It is important to consider the pros and cons, have clear communication with your partner, ask the tough questions, and make sure you are sacrificing for the right reasons. The right kind of sacrifice can bring people together, but sacrificing for the wrong reasons may be worse than no sacrifice at all.