Between You and Me

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Is He Worth It? Six Questions to Ask When Sacrificing in Relationships

Six questions to ask when deciding whether to sacrifice for someone you love.

What questions should you ask yourself?
We must all face situations in our close relationships that require us to make a sacrifice. Perhaps, your spouse receives a big promotion, and it requires that you quit your job and move across the country. Or your boyfriend wants you to miss an important work event to attend his family reunion. Maybe you and your wife get jobs in different cities and must decide who has to make the long commute. For me, it was deciding whether to apply to graduate programs in areas that weren't near where my husband (then boyfriend) was working. When faced with these situations, what information do we use to decide whether or not to make the sacrifice? In addition to consulting the pros and cons list, there are also important questions we should be asking ourselves. Below, I suggest six questions that might help when deciding whether or not making a sacrifice is right for you.

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How committed are you? Is this the person you plan to spend forever with, or just a fling? 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 knowing that your sacrifice is enabling you to build a life with the person you plan to be with may make it the right choice.

Would your partner do the same for you? Sacrifice is two-sided. In any situation where you are considering making a sacrifice, your partner is doing the same. While you are deciding whether or not to move across country to let your spouse take his promotion, your spouse must decide whether or not to sacrifice his promotion in order to allow you to keep your job. So as you debate whether or not to make a sacrifice, it is important to question whether your partner is going through the same thought process. Has your partner shown his or her commitment by being 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?

Does one of you want it more? You may find yourself in a situation where you and your partner want different things, and one if you will have to sacrifice. However, you may not be equally invested in the outcomes. Perhaps your partner really wants to attend her family reunion, and although you don’t relish missing your work event, you know your coworkers will understand, and the family reunion is a one time thing. As you navigate the situation, make sure you are both clear about what you want and what is important to you.

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, he or she 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.

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 either of you to sacrifice. 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 reveal that there is a place where you can have it all. 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 lessen the impact of the sacrifice.

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. Or you could negotiate it so that you will get to live outside the city in the country house you always wanted, and be able to take the photography class you had dreamed about.

By looking at the situation from all sides, having clear communication with your partner, and making sure you are in a committed relationship with a partner who appreciates your sacrifice, you may be able to come to a better understanding of the nature of the sacrifice, and whether or not it is worth it. 

What other questions do you ask yourself when deciding whether to sacrifice?

Note: This is the third in a three-part post on sacrifice in relationships. In Part I, I talked about the pros and cons of sacrificing for the ones we love. Part II focused on sacrificing for the right reasons.

Further reading:

Impett, E.A., & Gordon, A. M., (2008). For the good of others: Toward a positive psychology of sacrifice. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Positive Psychology Perspective Series (Vol. 2). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Van Lange, P., Rusbult, C., Drigotas, S., Arriaga, X., Witcher, B., & Cox, C. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72 (6), 1373-1395 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.72.6.1373

Drigotas, S., Rusbult, C., & Verette, J. (1999). Level of commitment, mutuality of commitment, and couple well-being Personal Relationships, 6 (3), 389-409 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.1999.tb00199.x

Powell, C., & Van Vugt, M. (2003). Genuine giving or selfish sacrifice? The role of commitment and cost level upon willingness to sacrifice European Journal of Social Psychology, 33 (3), 403-412 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.154

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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