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Why Relationship Sacrifices Aren't Always Worth Making

Relationship sacrifices are noble, but they can have heavy psychological costs.

Key points

  • After a sacrifice, the giver can experience lower well-being and the recipient can have mixed feelings about the sacrifice.
  • Women may be especially likely to experience lower well-being after a relationship sacrifice.
  • People who are grappling with a relationship sacrifice may want to change what they focus on or reconsider the need to sacrifice.
Steven Coffey / Unsplash
Source: Steven Coffey / Unsplash

A new study published in the Journal of Current Opinion in Psychology explains why the noble act of sacrifice may have hidden negative costs for both its giver and its receiver in a romantic relationship. According to the study, these costs may accumulate and cause bigger problems for the relationship in the future.

“It’s certainly honorable to put aside one’s own self-interest because of your partner or your relationship,” explains psychologist Francesca Righetti. “However, our research shows that there is a difficult aftermath for both the giver and the recipient.”

Righetti’s research assessed sacrifice in relationships from four different aspects by analyzing the results of more than 80 previous studies. These aspects were:

  1. Willingness to sacrifice
  2. The act of sacrifice
  3. Satisfaction with sacrifice
  4. Costs of sacrifice

The researchers found relationship sacrifice to be an “exceptionally costly prosocial behavior.”

“The giver experiences lower well-being after sacrificing and the recipient starts having mixed feelings about the sacrifice and the partner,” explains Righetti. “On the one hand, the receiver feels grateful, loved, and accepted, but they also feel guilty and in debt. And we know that having mixed feelings is not good for relationships.”

Sacrifice works differently compared to other prosocial behaviors in that it involves giving up one’s own preferences or goals for others. When people engage in other prosocial behaviors, they usually don’t need to give up something that they would rather do or have.

“Sacrifice is costly because it requires one to give up their own preferences and goals,” explains Righetti. “Focusing on these costs appears to be especially detrimental for the giver’s well-being and for the relationship.”

Another crucial finding of Righetti’s study was that women were especially likely to experience lower well-being after having sacrificed.

While the reasons for this tendency are still being studied, Righetti gives us this tentative explanation:

“We think that it may be that women may sacrifice more in their relationship and that, because of gender roles, they are also expected to sacrifice more and they do not receive as much appreciation and validation as men for their sacrifices,” she explains. “In sum, they may especially experience the costs and very little of the benefits.”

All things considered, Righetti warns that viewing sacrifice as an inherently negative or positive behavior may not be useful because, in most relationships, sacrifices are inevitable.

What one can change, however, is the way they appraise the nature and necessity of a sacrifice.

If you are grappling with sacrifice in your own relationship, Righetti advises you to:

  • Change what you focus on: If you focus on what you have lost after a sacrifice, you are more likely to experience lower personal well-being and relationship satisfaction. Therefore, Righetti encourages you to look at the bright side of the sacrifice (e.g., looking at how happy the partner is or what you/they can learn from this experience, or feeling proud of being such a generous person).
  • Reconsider the need to sacrifice: Sometimes sacrifices are necessary to maintain a relationship. However, there are times when they can be avoided through contingency plans and a little bit of adjustment. To explain this, Righetti gives the example of moving due to a partner’s career opportunity or a partner wanting to spend a weekend with their parents. In the first case, either they sacrifice their career opportunity or their partner moves with them. In the second case, sacrifice is not necessary. If one partner wants to spend the weekend with their parents and the other doesn’t, they can simply decide to spend the weekend separately while preserving their relationship (and saving stress for both of them).

Ultimately, couples need to navigate these situations and decide when it is necessary that one of them sacrifices and when it is possible for each of them to pursue their preferences independently while remaining joyful afterward.

References

Righetti, Francesca (Interview). Will sacrifice strengthen or destroy your relationship? Therapytips.org, June 30, 2022.

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