You asked your partner to pick up milk, but find no milk in the fridge for your coffee the next morning. The phone rings and you and your partner get invited to dinner with friends of his you don’t really like. It’s the end of a long day and both you and your partner are exhausted, but someone has to put the toddler to bed.
These moments of conflicting desires are inevitable in relationships, but it’s not always clear the best way to respond. Do you focus on your own desires, be true to yourself, and complain about the lack of milk, say no to the dinner, or beg your partner to put your toddler to bed? Or do you suppress your desires and put your partner’s needs first—do you stop yourself from complaining, agree to the dinner, and encourage your partner to relax while you read bedtime stories?
Some research shows that suppressing your own needs often backfires, leaving you feeling less authentic and satisfied. And your partner doesn’t really benefit either: They can sense your true feelings, even if you try to hide them. These small moments of sacrifice and suppression add up, and the more people sacrifice for their partners, the more depressed they tend to be.
But someone has to put the toddler to bed; for relationships (and families) to work, sacrifice is sometimes essential. The good news is that a new study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that suppressing your desires for the sake of your partner is not necessarily a bad thing.
When is it not a bad thing? When your partner provides you with strong social support.
Surveying 141 Taiwanese couples, Wei-Fang Lin and colleagues found that, in the moment, participants who often suppressed their needs and desires in their marriages were less satisfied with their marriages and more depressed than those who suppressed less often. This is consistent with the prior research suggesting that frequent sacrifice can be hard on personal and social well-being.
However, over time, suppression only seemed to be bad for well-being (marital satisfaction and depression) if participants were not in supportive relationships. If their partner reported providing strong social support, then suppressing their needs and desires had no effect on their satisfaction and depression a year later.
In this study, social support meant encouraging and listening to your partner, understanding your partner’s thoughts and feelings, and expressing care and concern for your partner.
Why does having a supportive partner buffer against the negative effects of suppressing your own desires in a relationship? The authors suggest that sacrifices are costly, and having social support helps balance out those costs by providing you with other resources.
“Sacrifice, by giving up one’s own desire and wishes to satisfy a partner’s need, could be viewed as a loss of personal resources, making sacrifice stressful,” the researchers write. Support from a partner “could help an individual deal with feelings of vulnerability as a result of making a sacrifice.”
Having a partner who is encouraging, understanding, and caring may also change the very nature of sacrifice. Perhaps holding back a complaint about your partner forgetting the milk doesn’t feel so inauthentic when you know that they really care about you and wouldn’t be thoughtless on purpose. Perhaps, instead, holding back that complaint or taking on the bedtime routine feels like a gift you are giving your thoughtful partner rather than a suppression of your own needs and desires.
Indeed, other research has suggested that when people sacrifice for positive reasons (to make their partner happy, to bring them closer together), sacrifice can be good for the relationship. These findings also align with work showing that doing more chores may actually make people happier in their relationships if their partners make them feel appreciated for their efforts. And feeling understood by a partner can buffer against the negative effects of relationship conflict, as well.
Other research on sacrifice in relationships has largely been done with participants from the United States, so it’s notable that participants in this study were Taiwanese. Although there may be some cultural differences in how couples deal with sacrifice, at least part of the dynamic seems to be similar.
So do you complain about the milk or put yourself first when it comes to the dinner and bedtime plans? The research cannot tell you what to do—but it can give you some important questions to ask.
What is the state of your relationship—do you feel loved and supported? Do you give each other the benefit of the doubt? If you don’t feel supported by your partner, then biting back your complaint or begrudgingly taking on the bedtime routine may add to a growing pile of resentment, boding poorly for your relationship and mental health over time.
If, on the other hand, you feel loved and supported by your partner, then sacrificing for them may feel like an act of kindness. It might have momentary costs, but it could contribute to your satisfaction over time, perhaps by providing support for your partner and encouraging them to respond in kind.