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Do You See Your Partner’s Sacrifices?

We may only accurately detect a partner’s sacrifice about half the time.

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Romantic relationships require sacrifice—sometimes it’s big, such as moving to a new city when your partner lands their dream job. And sometimes it’s small, such as doing the dishes after dinner so that your partner can have a few moments to relax. Sacrifice is often talked about as an unpleasant necessity, but it’s also a chance for partners to recognize and appreciate each other.

Just as when partners thank each other for doing their job, expressing thanks for a partner’s sacrifice turns it into an opportunity to make your partner feel appreciated. And a partner who feels appreciated is likely to be one who is grateful, committed, and satisfied with the relationship.

But do we even notice when our partners make sacrifices for us? Recent work by close relationships researchers in the Netherlands and Canada looked at this question and found that the answer is: probably not. In two different studies of young couples, they had couples track sacrifices for one to two weeks, reporting on their own and their partner’s sacrifices. By comparing the reports from both partners in a couple, the researchers were able to figure out how often people got it right (accurately reported that their partner had sacrificed for them when their partner actually did report sacrificing for them), missed a sacrifice (reported that their partner had not sacrificed when their partner reported that they did sacrifice), and had a false alarm (reported that their partner had sacrificed when their partner did not report any sacrifice).

It turns out, in these two studies at least, people only detect their partner’s sacrifice about half the time. The other half went unnoticed. But people also see sacrifices that aren’t there—40 to 50 percent of the time when people reported that their partner sacrificed, their partner had not reported engaging in any sacrifice!

So what do all of those missed sacrifices and false alarms (seeing sacrifices that aren’t there) mean for the relationship? People feel more appreciative of their partners on days when they think their partner has sacrificed for them. And this is true whether or not their partner actually did sacrifice. As for the sacrificer—rather than being an unpleasant necessity, sacrificing was associated with more relationship satisfaction, but only if their partner detected the sacrifice and was grateful for it. Sacrificers felt less appreciated and were less satisfied when the sacrifice went unnoticed.

Does this mean that partners should start telling each other when they sacrifice to cut down on the number of misses? The researchers suggest that this isn’t the answer—sacrifices are beneficial when they are seen as selfless acts, so telling your partner how you sacrificed might change the meaning of the sacrifice (“you’re just doing it to get something from me”). Also, there may be times when a sacrifice goes unnoticed but is still helpful for the relationship in other ways—maybe it solves an issue that could be a problem (who is going to make dinner?) or allows a stressed partner to get some much-needed exercise or downtime, putting them in a better mood.

What can you do to make the most of sacrifices? It can be problematic for a romantic relationship if partners are keeping too close of a tally of who's doing what for whom (we prefer our close relationships to be communal—helping each other out when we need it). But we all like to feel appreciated, so it doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes out for ways your partner is sacrificing for you and then acknowledge the sacrifice when you notice it. You both might feel better about your relationship if you do.

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Visserman, M. L., Impett, E. A., Righetti, F., Muise, A., Keltner, D., & Van Lange, P. A. (2019). To “see” is to feel grateful? A quasi-signal detection analysis of romantic partners’ sacrifices. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(3), 317-325.

More from Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
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