In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Does Love Involve Sacrifice or Compromise?

Love is full of compromises and sacrifices


"Sacrificing your happiness for the happiness of the one you love is by far the truest type of love." Unknown
"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it." Oscar Wilde

The need for sacrifices and compromises is often mentioned in discussions of romantic relationships. Are the two the same and if not, which of the two is most needed in romantic relationships? According to Romantic Ideology, love is frequently described as involving sacrifices and resisting compromises. In reality, the situation is typically the opposite-relationships require fewer sacrifices and more compromises.

To sacrifice is to give up something precious in order to gain or maintain something, such as a valuable relationship or some other worthy cause. Thus, we say that some women sacrifice their careers for their family. The term "sacrifice" is often used in religious contexts referring to the act of offering something precious to a deity, such as the sacrificial murder of a victim. As Romantic Ideology has certain aspects in common with religious beliefs, the term "sacrifice" is frequently used in romantic contexts as well. Intense love has no qualms about making considerable sacrifices.

To compromise is to give up the pursuit of a better prospect in order not to risk an existing situation, even if it is perceived to be somewhat worse than the prospect that is relinquished. Although the prospect might be better and even considered feasible, the person decides not to pursue it.

The realm of sacrifice is in the actual realm; the realm of compromise is in the possible and imaginary realm. Sacrifice entails actual deeds and losses. One cannot sacrifice in one's mind what one does not have in reality. Compromise typically entails inaction and possible losses, which are constantly reconsidered in our minds.

Compromises are loaded with intense emotional aspects and are harder to bear, as they involve unfinished business that could alter the existing situation. Sacrifices deal with actual and concrete actions. Like other actions, their consequences can be positive or negative but once completed, they are over and tend not to carry a significant emotional load.

We are typically excited by things that are incomplete, unsettled, unexplained, or uncertain, as we perceive them to be unusual and so they demand our attention and thoughts. Once the situation is settled and established, there is no reason for the mental system to be on the alert and invest further resources. Courtship, flirting, extramarital affairs and cyberlove are exciting because they seem in a sense to be unfinished business.

When compromising, you give up something that you want and might in fact attain; when sacrificing, you give up something that you actually have. In this regard it is worthwhile to compare the relationship between compromise and sacrifice to that between envy and jealousy. When envious, you want something that you do not have and when jealous, you fear losing something precious that you have (such as an intimate relationship) to someone else. Jealousy is typically more painful as it is harder to lose something personal that is already yours (especially when the loss is to a rival) than to fail to gain something that has never been yours. The situation in the compromise-sacrifice pair is the opposite: The potential loss has greater negative significance than the actual loss.

A major difference between the envy-jealousy pair and the compromise-sacrifice pair is that the situations of the former pair are forced upon us by external circumstances beyond our control, whereas in the latter pair we choose those circumstances.

The actual loss in jealousy is against the wish of the agent and refers to a most sensitive personal aspect-the loss of a very intimate lover. Hence, it is more painful than envy where the potential loss is less feasible and less personal. In sacrifice, the actual loss is chosen by the agent and it refers to something with which the agent believes she can cope.

The potential loss in compromise is more emotionally painful because it involves unfinished business; the person might not accept the compromise and might be constantly aware of its negative aspects. Sacrifice is less emotional as the person has willingly made it and has no further doubts concerning its value and necessity, unless the person begins to regret it. Sacrifice is so natural among lovers that they are sometimes even not aware of it. The typical emotion associated with compromise is frustration, while sacrifice is often associated with sympathy and compassion. The regret about missing a valuable opportunity is present typically in compromise and not in sacrifice.

The decision to make a sacrifice is taken in light of the great benefit for the other person or for the relationship, while the decision to compromise is mainly taken out of fear of the risk and potential damage in pursuing the alternative. In compromise, the agent still believes in the greater value of the possible alternative and hence does not fully accept the existing situation. Accordingly, when making sacrifices people may not even stop to consider why they should make the sacrifice for their beloved. When making compromises, however, a sense of unfinished business can prevail and people might continue to doubt the value of the compromise and continue to yearn for the alternative. This will continue until they accommodate themselves to the new situation and no longer see it as entailing a compromise. Hence, compromises typically involve more emotional repercussions than do sacrifices.

Loving relationships involve both sacrifices and compromises. The sacrifices are easier to live with and lovers attempt to accommodate to their compromises and no longer view them as such. So although sacrifices and compromises are prevalent in romantic relationships, in genuine love they are not experienced as such.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, please sacrifice something for me so that I know that you love me, and in return I will stop considering you as the major compromise of my life."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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