Love by the Numbers

The latest in relationship research.

Do Sacrifices in Relationships Give Happiness? It Depends

How the small things we do for our partners could be harming our relationships.

Love, sacrifice, happiness
Sacrifice May Be Bad for Your Relationship
In the 22nd installment of Sage’s Relationship Matters podcast, hosted by Dr. Bjarne Holmes of Champlain College, Dr. Casey Totenhagen (University of Arizona) dicusses recent research on how the daily sacrifices we make in relationships (e.g., doing the dishes, picking up a partner from work) influence how happy and committed we are in our relationships. 

Totenhagen explained, “In a relationship the partners are interdependent, and what I’m feeling and getting out of the relationship really depends on how my partner is treating me. These sacrifices are opportunities that we have to show our partners that we care about them, that we’re invested in the relationship, and that we want and expect the relationship to continue.”

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Dr. Totenhagen’s research team asked participants to keep detailed daily records of their behaviors and feelings over a period of several weeks.

What did they find?

Small daily sacrifices for a partner were linked to people feeling more committed to that partner even if making sacrifices had little influence on participants’ own happiness or on how close they felt to the partner. So, while it may not make us happy to make small sacrifices, those little sacrifices do seem to help our relationships by making us feel more committed to our partners.

But, there’s an important caveat to this finding. Totenhagen explained, “If I’m performing sacrifices on a particular day, I’m more likely to report feeling more committed to my partner, but the thing is, that positive effect really depends on what the rest of my day was like. So if I was doing sacrifices on a day when I felt really stressed out or had a lot of hassling experiences, then that beneficial effect no longer holds.”

In fact, Totenhagen and colleagues found that if either partner had a day full of hassles, making sacrifices decreases both partners’ satisfaction with the relationship and is detrimental to feelings of closeness.

Bottom line: It’s really important for both people in a relationship to try to reduce daily hassles. Sacrifices are good and help us feel more committed on days when we’re feeling relatively hassle-free. On days where we’ve had a lot of hassles, however, the small sacrifices we have to make can become construed as an additional hassle that can lead to resentment.

The podcast can be heard in its entirety here, and the full research paper can be read here.  

Totenhagen, C.J., Curran, M.A., Serido, J., & Butler, E. (In Press). Good days, bad days: Do sacrifices improve relationship quality? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, DOI: 10.1177/0265407512472475.

A version of this article was previously published on Science of Relationships.com

Bjarne Holmes, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Program Director for Psychology at Champlain College in Vermont. more...

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