Marriage involves sacrifice. So do relationships. And so sometimes we need our partners to be willing to go the extra 5,280 feet. But when they make sacrifices, do we want to hear them wail and kvetch? Apparently we do—or at least we want to hear their authentic emotional expressions. So suggest the results of an 80-couple study conducted by psychologists affiliated with the Universities of Toronto and Cambridge, and with UC San Diego and UC Berkeley. Couples were of a diverse mix of ethnicities.
The researchers’ hypothesis: Sacrificing without expressing the act's emotional cost has its own price. The benefitting partner perceives that the loved one is hiding his or her true feelings. Trust and intimacy suffer.
The researchers’ first goal was to find out whether people can accurately catch loved ones in the act of concealing sacrifice-related emotion. In the lab at UC Berkeley, the 80 couples talked about three topics: sacrifice, love, and a time in their lives of suffering. Significantly, the conversations about sacrifice always preceded the other two conversations, and the sacrifice conversation was always about something that had been given up or conceded in the context of the current romantic relationship. Having had their awareness of each others' sacrifices heightened, beginning that night and for a total of 14 nights the individual members of each couple completed an online survey—in private and without discussing their answers with their romantic partners. The survey asked questions about how they felt and how they thought their partner felt after making the sort of sacrifices people sometimes need to make for each other.
Interestingly, the researchers found that, when partner A admitted in the confidential survey to suppressing emotion, often partner B remained oblivious. When partner B suspected suppression in the confidential survey, partner A might report none of it. And so on.
Apparently we humans are fairly bad at catching each other in the act of loving concealment. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think we're good at it.
In another experiment the researchers tested whether believing a partner was suppressing sacrifice-related emotion affected the quality of the relationship. Examining the confidential survey data, they discovered that it did. The suspecting partner reported fewer positive emotions, more negative emotions, and perceived his or her partner as less authentic in general. And on specific days in which they thought they’d caught their partner in the very act, they reported lower relationship quality and more conflict.
Finally, the researchers assessed whether the cost to relationships of perceived suppression were long- or short-lived. In a three-month follow-up survey people who perceived their partner as inauthentic when making sacrifices felt less committed to the relationship, though they did not actually harbor significantly more thoughts about breaking up. The long-term effect, then, of thinking one’s partner to be compromising only grudgingly may be real, but too subtle to cause precipitous change.
The take-away for couples? According to lead author Emily Impett of the University of Toronto, “Many studies have suggested that sacrifice and other pro-relationship behaviors are beneficial for couples. It might be good, for example, to be giving and forgiving, and to accommodate some degree of negative behavior. But our data suggest that people in relationships want to know whether a partner who makes a sacrifice does so in a genuine or authentic manner. Sacrifice is not uniformly positive. It’s only when people feel that their partner has expressed the attendant genuine emotions—even negative genuine emotions—that relationships maximally benefit from the give and take that they require.”
Emily A. Impett, Bonnie M. Le, Aleksandr Kogan, Christopher Oveis, and Dacher Keltner, “When You Think Your Partner Is Holding Back: The Costs of Perceived Partner Suppression During Relationship Sacrifice.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, in press.
Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and humorist. Her most recent science book is Murders Most Foul: And the School Shooters in Our Midst (Vook, 2012) Her most recent humor book is Nietzsche’s Angel Food Cake: And Other “Recipes” for the Intellectually Famished (Beck & Branch, 2013).