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How Much Should Partners Be Willing to Sacrifice for Each Other?

New research on who's most likely to put a partner first.

Key points

  • Couples tend to make small sacrifices on a daily basis, even without necessarily being aware that they are.
  • When one partner's relocation requires a large-scale sacrifice from the partner, the situation can put the relationship to the test.
  • Based on new research, couples can survive these major sacrifices by understanding each other's emotional needs.

Romantic partners make sacrifices for each other all the time, even if they don’t always realize it. One of you has to run to the drug store and another has to get home early to let in a repair person. If you stop and think about the daily give and take between you and your partner, even these tiny examples illustrate how the list can soon become far more extensive than you might have imagined.

Small sacrifices are one thing, but what about the larger costs that come with your relationship? One of you has a job offer or wants to go back to school, moves that will require relocation. The other partner is perfectly content staying put and, in fact, is well-situated in terms of their own job and proximity to extended family. The move will be costly in both practical and emotional terms.

According to the University of Toronto’s Gabriela C.M. Murphy and colleagues (2022), “Sacrifices may…be taxing on relationship quality when they are large-scale and highly costly to the self.” What makes the sacrifices particularly stressful for a couple, they go on to propose, is when one of the partners is high on what’s called “attachment insecurity.” This form of attachment style includes fear of intimacy and/or being abandoned, and can come into play during stressful situations. Large-scale sacrifices, or those that the authors call “life-altering,” constitute exactly such a form of stress.

Attachment Insecurity and Large-Scale Sacrifices

Why would either the fear of intimacy or abandonment become so activated by one of these life-altering sacrifices? In general, attachment insecurity is associated with poorer relationship functioning, because one partner engages in self-protective forms of avoidance or, alternatively, is constantly demanding attention and reassurance. When one partner wants to upset the applecart in the couple’s day-to-day functioning, the avoidant individual will feel that their autonomy is so threatened that they refuse to engage in any planning. The anxiously attached individual would more generally find the prospect of such a sacrifice as jeopardizing the entire relationship.

There is a way out of this bind, however. The Attachment Security Enhancement Model (ASEM) proposes that partners can alleviate the distress an insecurely attached individual may experience. The partner can frame the prospect of a move in a way that allows the avoidant partner to retain their sense of autonomy. The anxiously attached individual, by contrast, can be reassured by having the partner emphasize how much they support and love them.

These forms of “tailored prosociality” can, according to the predictions of Murphy et al., “prevent the erosion” of the relationship potentially caused by the request for a major sacrifice. Other factors can also come into play. One is the expression of gratitude by the partner, which can indicate how much they recognize and appreciate whatever sacrifices the partner is willing to make. The other is for the partner to engage in essentially “makeup” sacrifices on a daily basis. Even though the large-scale sacrifice can’t technically be reciprocated, it’s possible for the partner to build up a reservoir of mini sacrifices (e.g., going home early to meet that repair person) to achieve greater equity.

Testing the Model's Approach to Large-Scale Sacrifices

To test these possibilities, the authors recruited an online sample of 229 individuals (155 women, 72 men, 2 nonbinary) averaging 32 years old and having been in a relationship (88 percent heterosexual) for slightly more than eight years. All participants experienced a major relocation due to their partner’s career.

Participants rated their own attachment orientation with questions such as “I try to avoid getting too close to my partner” (avoidant) and “I need a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my partner” (anxious). In terms of the move, they rated whether their partner showed gratitude to them with questions such as “I think my partner feels grateful/thankful/appreciative to me for making this move with them.”

The small-scale sacrifice measure asked participants to rate how often their partners had made daily sacrifices across eight areas, such as “doing the dishes when it wasn’t their turn.” They also rated whether their partner seemed particularly willing to make these sacrifices with items such as “I think my partner feels very willing to sacrifice in our relationship.”

Participants also rated their overall satisfaction with the relationship as well as commitment, intimacy, trust, passion, and love. Looking at the negative side of relationship functioning, the authors also asked participants to indicate how often they argued, whether they felt angry or resentful toward their partner, and if they tried to “change things about your partner that bother you.” Finally, participants rated whether they felt the move was “beneficial for our relationship.”

Do Prosociality and Gratitude Really Make a Difference?

Turning to the results, as the authors hypothesized, there was a negative effect of the move on relationship quality for partners higher in attachment insecurity. However, consistent with the ASEM, the large-scale sacrifice didn’t necessarily have to result in detrimental outcomes.

For the avoidantly attached individuals, it was important to perceive that their partners allowed them to feel that their autonomy was respected and that their partners were generally grateful to them. Indeed, the avoidant partners could even perceive the move as benefiting them if their partners showed high move-related gratitude.

The findings for anxiously attached partners revealed that, again consistent with the ASEM, there needed to be a match between the perceived behavior of the partner and their own needs for reassurance. This meant that their partners were seen as willing to make those small but daily sacrifices that, essentially, “proved” their love and devotion. With this finding, the authors believe they discovered “a novel buffer to the attachment literature," demonstrating that anxiously attached individuals “may be on the lookout and benefit the most from partner responses that reciprocate their large, move-related, sacrifice.”

Large or Small, How Can Your Relationship Survive a Sacrifice?

These impressive findings using a sample with real-life relationship stress provide hope that even when an individual struggles with attachment issues, it’s possible to prevent things from falling apart by some simple behaviors by the partner. Although large-scale sacrifices such as a major relocation don’t necessarily occur that often for most couples, there is still a lesson to be gained from this study.

If you have a partner that you believe shows signs of insecure attachment, you can adapt the ASEM to your own sets of life stressors. Depending on whether they pull away from you or, conversely, need constant reassurance, you can use one of the prosocial strategies through your words and actions.

One note of caution is that the U. Toronto team reported no buffering effects of partners' prosocial behavior on the frequency of conflict. Relocation, it seems, is enough of a stressor to create discord in the constant decisions that couples have to make in association with the move, such as where to put the furniture or send the kids to school. As unpleasant as these disputes may be, the study's findings suggest that they needn't erode your overall relationship's quality.

To sum up, the Murphy et al. findings highlight the importance of gratitude and reciprocity. It may, indeed, be the “little things” that can help relationship partners manage the “big things.”

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Murphy, G. C. M., Horne, R. M., Visserman, M. L., & Impett, E. A. (2022). Relationship functioning following a large-scale sacrifice: Perceived partner prosociality buffers attachment insecurity. Journal of Family Psychology. doi: 10.1037/fam0000994.

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