Sacrificing Without Giving In

All relationships involve sacrifice. Many people include the concept of sacrifice in their definition of true love. Research shows that couples report feeling happier, and are more likely to stay in the relationship if the partners routinely make sacrifices for each other. Sometimes those sacrifices are life-changing. Other times they’re smaller and may even seem mundane. Either way, they’re inevitable. But when it comes time to make a sacrifice, it may not be easy.

Sacrifice raises power issues. If you’re willing to sacrifice frequently early on in a relationship but your partner doesn’t reciprocate, you may become trapped in a pattern in which you are always the one expected to give up or to give in. Over time, this lopsided pattern leads to a power imbalance, which is a recipe for long-term resentment and unhappiness.

Studies by social psychologists including Caryl Rusbult, Paul Van Lange, and Emily Impett suggest that making sacrifices for somebody you love shows them that you care and makes you feel better about yourself. But the research also shows that if you’re always the one to sacrifice, or that you feel forced to sacrifice, that you should proceed with caution.

To discern whether or not the sacrifices are worth it, try answering these six questions:

  1. How invested are you? One of the most significant forerunners to sacrifice is commitment. For a significant sacrifice to be worthwhile, you need to be sure you’re committed the relationship and have confidence regarding your future together. Sacrifice can feel more palatable when it’s helping you draw closer to somebody you plan to be with for the rest of your lives.
  2. Would your partner sacrifice for you? Sacrifice is a two-way street. As you and your partner discuss whether to make a sacrifice or not, studies suggest that it’s important to explore whether your partner has the same level of commitment in the situation as you do, and is going through a similar thought process to yours. If your partner is assuming that you’re automatically the one who will make the sacrifice without taking similar responsibility on his or her end, you need to consider the situation more thoroughly.
  3. Does one of you want the outcome more than the other wants it? When a situation would require sacrifice from just one of you, the other may not be as heavily invested in the end result. As you work through the details of the situation, be certain that you’re both clear regarding your own priorities and desires.
  4. Does your partner realize that you’re making a sacrifice? If not, she or he will not be able to fully appreciate your selfless act. And if your partner doesn’t understand that you’re paying a price for the relationship’s sake, he or she won’t grasp why you’re expecting a favor to be returned the next time that a sacrifice is involved. Also, it’s important for you to know if your partner doesn’t agree with you and therefore doesn’t consider your actions to be a sacrifice.
  5. Is there a superior solution? Rather than deciding from only among the choices at hand, you should work with your partner to discover if there’s a solution that wouldn’t require as significant a sacrifice from either of you. Close relationships involve giving when it’s needed. But this doesn’t mean that you and your partner can’t reach an arrangement that would suit each of you equally well. Things may even work out in this way when bigger sacrifices are involved.
  6. What is your motivation? This may be the most important question that you should ask yourself. Studies show that people make sacrifices for a wide variety of reasons, and they don’t all guarantee a happy ending.

Are you moving across the country to keep your relationship intact and to make your partner happy? Or are you just attempting to avoid possible conflict? Avoidance-motivated sacrifices can undermine satisfaction and happiness in a relationship. If you’re sacrificing to avoid conflicts, you may think, “I feel bad right now, but at least we’re not fighting and our relationship isn’t going to suffer.” But this is not the case. People who believe that their partner’s sacrifice was motivated by conflict avoidance tend to report less satisfaction regarding the relationship.

Thankfully, there is another option. When you’re sacrificing to make your partner happy, the happiness and trust in the relationship can potentially increase. People who sacrifice for reasons such as long-term gain as a couple or helping to achieve your partner’s dreams tend to be more satisfied and to have stronger relationships.

Sacrificing to increase your partner’s happiness can be a positive thing. But it may be troublesome if you’re constantly sacrificing because you want to be a “good” partner and to please your partner at the cost of your own happiness. In the long run, people who constantly prioritize their partner’s needs over their own pay a price in terms of mental health and self-esteem. Sacrifice is a component of close relationships, but sacrificing should not force you to perpetually neglect your own needs.

Relationships include sacrifice. But before we give up or give in, we need to think things through: consider both the pros and the cons, communicate clearly with your partner, ask all the questions, and be sure you’re not sacrificing for the wrong reasons. Properly sacrificing can draw couples closer. But making sacrifices for the wrong reasons can be worse than not sacrificing at all.

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