Suppose you want hamburgers for dinner, but your partner wants to order Chinese. Or you want to watch an action flick, whereas your partner wants to watch a baseball game. Or that there are disagreements about what car to buy, where to live, how to raise your children, etc. In such situations, where goals or preferences are in conflict, either you or your partner may decide to make a sacrifice.
A recent study by Righetti and colleagues, published in the April 2022 issue of Current Opinion in Psychology, suggests sacrifice “can take a toll on the giver’s well-being.” Furthermore, even for the recipient, sacrifice is a “mixed blessing,” and could have “some harmful consequences for relationships in the long run.”
Below, I present a selective summary of the authors’ findings.
Prosocial behaviors and making sacrifices
Sacrifice is a type of prosocial behavior, which refers to behavior intended to benefit others.
Aside from benefiting the person helped, prosocial behaviors are associated with additional positive outcomes such as relationship well-being and positive affect (e.g., emotions such as pride, interest, and enthusiasm). Prosocial behaviors can even be considered attractive, particularly when involving risks and heroism.
As noted earlier, one type of prosocial behavior in intimate relationships involves making sacrifices. Sacrifice refers to giving up one’s immediate preferences and goals for the good of one’s relationship or partner’s well-being and happiness.
Sacrifice differs from other prosocial behaviors, like heroic behaviors. Sacrifice occurs “when people initially have an immediate self-oriented preference but then decide not to pursue it, after considering outcomes for the partner or the relationship.”
Therefore, it is not a sacrifice when “people’s immediate self-oriented preference is to help and benefit others.” A sacrifice occurs only when helping others necessitates giving up personal goals or preferences.
Sacrifices, mental health, and relationship health
Depending on the specific aspect of sacrifice studied, sacrifice is associated with different outcomes. For example, a 2020 meta-analysis of 82 data sets (over 32,000 participants) found:
- Willingness to sacrifice, or the intention to sacrifice, was linked positively with personal well-being, partner well-being, and relationship well-being.
- Behavioral sacrifice, meaning the actual occurrence of sacrifice, was associated with lower personal well-being.
- Satisfaction with sacrifice was linked with the sacrificer’s and his/her romantic partner’s well-being.
- Costs of sacrifice (i.e. how costly the sacrifice has been for oneself) negatively correlated with personal, partner, and relationship well-being.
Let us consider behavioral sacrifice in greater detail.
As shown above, behavioral sacrifice appears to lower personal well-being; however, it has no significant effect on the relationship’s well-being or the partner’s well-being.
Surprisingly, the data also suggests that even from the romantic partner’s perspective (who, due to the sacrifice, got what they wanted), behavioral sacrifices are often inconsequential. Why?
Because an act of sacrifice must first be detected and recognized as a sacrifice. But this occurs only half the time.
The rest of the time, an act of sacrifice goes unnoticed, so the benefited individual does not feel grateful and thus does not show appreciation for the sacrifice.
But does behavioral sacrifice, once accurately detected, result in positive emotions (e.g., gratitude, appreciation, happiness)? Usually, yes. However, recognition of the sacrifice typically also results in negative emotions. For example, the recipient of sacrifice may feel guilt, indebtedness, and higher negative mood (e.g., feeling upset or distressed).
A similar mix of feelings is true of the individual who makes the sacrifice; he or she may feel resentful, exploited, or unappreciated (though simultaneously happy and proud for having benefited their partner).
Worse yet, research indicates these sacrifice-related ambivalent feelings are predictive of thinking about breaking up (or actually breaking up), a year later.
Sacrifice: not the only solution to conflict, yet sometimes necessary
Self-sacrifice is not the only way to resolve conflicts of interest. There are other options:
Each party could go their own way (e.g., order different foods, take separate vacations) or find a compromise (e.g., buy a crossover instead of either a sedan or an SUV). Having said that, sometimes sacrifice is necessary for maintaining a romantic relationship.
To illustrate, suppose a man is offered a lucrative job, which requires relocating to a small town; however, his wife desires to continue to live in the big city. Here, one solution involves a sacrifice. The question is, who should make the sacrifice?
Perhaps the answer depends on the cost of sacrifice (for each member).
If the man already has a great job, for instance, refusing the lucrative offer will be a small sacrifice on his part, particularly if his spouse has needs (e.g., relationship needs, medical care) better met in the big city.
An alternative solution, in situations involving less consequential decisions, is for the members of a couple to take turns making sacrifices. For example, listening to one partner’s favorite music while driving to a friend’s home and the other partner’s favorite music on the way back.
Reducing the negative effects of sacrifice
As we have seen, behavioral sacrifice is associated with lower well-being, so let us conclude by considering some ways couples can reduce the negative effects of sacrifice on well-being.
If you are the one making a sacrifice:
- Try to underestimate the costs of the sacrifice.
- Think more about what you have gained from the sacrifice than what you have lost.
- Focus on your romantic partner’s well-being.
And if your partner is the one who is making a sacrifice:
- Put yourself in your partner’s place, so you can better understand and appreciate the costs of the sacrifice.
- Express your gratitude.
- Validate your partner’s interests, desires, and needs.