A New Reason to Acknowledge Your Partner’s Sacrifice

It may create a virtuous cycle of gratitude and appreciation.

Posted May 05, 2018

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Grace is receiving an award Wednesday evening, and she wants her husband, Josh, to be there with her. He agrees, even though it means giving up his weekly soccer game with his friends. On another occasion, she agrees to spend Thanksgiving with his parents, even though she was hoping to spend it with hers.

All relationships require sacrifices. We give up something we want so that our partner can have what they want. As long as both members of the relationship feel the sacrifices are equitable, they’re usually willing to give in. It’s only when one makes constant demands and the other routinely gives in that a feeling of resentment arises.

In fact, making a sacrifice for the sake of your partner can even be rewarding. If your partner acknowledges your sacrifice and expresses gratitude, you feel appreciated. And this positive feeling can make you more inclined to sacrifice in the future.

Of course, before you can feel gratitude for your partner’s sacrifice, you need to first become aware that they have given in for your benefit. When Josh and Grace went to the movies, they saw the latest Star Wars movie he wanted rather than the rom-com she was hoping to see. But since she never told him her preference, he simply assumed that she wanted what he wanted. In his excitement, he failed to read her body language showing her disappointment.

We expect our partners to see when we’ve made a sacrifice for them and show us gratitude. But how accurate are we at detecting the sacrifices our partners make for us? This is the question that Dutch psychologist Mariko Visserman and her colleagues asked.

The researchers used a method known as signal detection theory to assess how sensitive couples are to each other’s sacrifices. Signal detection theory has a wide range of uses, from hearing tests (Did you hear a tone or not?) to national defense (Is that an incoming aircraft or a flock of geese?). In any act of perception, according to the theory, there are four possible scenarios:

  • Hit. A signal was present, and the perceiver detected it. Grace agreed to watch Star Wars even though she doesn’t like sci-fi, and Josh thanked her for her sacrifice.
  • Miss. A signal was present, but the perceiver didn’t detect it. Josh never noticed how unhappy Grace was about watching Star Wars.
  • False alarm. No signal was present, but the perceiver thinks there was one. On a stay-at-home night, Josh really wants to watch Stephen Colbert, even though he thinks Grace prefers Jimmy Fallon. He really appreciates his wife’s sacrifice. But in reality, Grace was getting tired of Jimmy Fallon and wanted to watch something different anyway.
  • Correct rejection. No signal was present, and the perceiver didn’t think there was one, either. Josh wants to eat at the Olive Garden, and he thinks that’s her preference, too. And he’s right—that’s where she was thinking of going as well. In other words, Grace didn’t sacrifice, and Josh was right in thinking she didn't.

In two parallel studies, the researchers recruited couples living in the Netherlands or in the San Francisco Bay area. Every evening for two weeks, each member of the couple received a link on their smartphone to a brief survey. First, they were asked two yes/no questions:

  • Have you sacrificed for your partner today?
  • Did your partner sacrifice for you today?

After that, they responded to three statements using a five-point scale, where 1 meant “not at all” and 5 meant “very much”:

  • I feel very grateful to my partner.
  • My partner expressed gratitude for what I have done for him/her.
  • I feel satisfied with our relationship.

On average, participants reported that they sacrificed about three times during the two-week period, and that their partner sacrificed slightly less often. However, responses to both questions varied widely, from none at all to almost every day.

The main question of the study was: How good are people at recognizing when their partner has sacrificed for them? The answer was rather disappointing. When one member of the couple reported that they had sacrificed, their partner only detected that sacrifice about half of the time. In other words, half of all sacrifices went unnoticed.

There’s also good news, though. When one partner recognized the other’s sacrifice, they felt more grateful toward them and more satisfied with the relationship. Likewise, the sacrificing partner appreciated this gratitude and also reported higher relationship satisfaction. These findings suggest that when we sacrifice for our partner, we start a virtuous cycle with benefits for both partners. In other words, our sacrifice triggers feelings of gratitude in our partner, which then elicit in ourselves a sense of being appreciated. As a result, we’re both happier than we were, and the relationship is strengthened as a result.

Likewise, when a sacrifice goes unnoticed, it sets off a vicious cycle. The partner who sacrificed feels unappreciated, and as a result their relationship satisfaction goes down. This dissatisfaction is vaguely sensed by the other partner, who feels less happy with the marriage as well.

When Grace and Josh were at the movies, it would have been better for her to say something like: “I was in the mood for a romantic comedy, but I know how much you love Star Wars, so let’s do that.” If Josh then shows his gratitude, Grace will feel appreciated and the sacrifice will have been worthwhile. And there’s always the possibility that Josh will offer to make the sacrifice of going with Grace’s preference instead. So she benefits either way.

Likewise, it’s important for us to be mindful of our partner’s sacrifices. We can do this by paying attention to our partner’s body language and facial expressions. After stating his desire to see the Star Wars film, Josh should have noticed the displeasure on Grace’s face and asked her if she had a different preference. Or better still, he could have asked her preference first before he stated his own.

Recall that the researchers used a signal detection procedure that not only measured hits and misses but also false alarms and correct rejections. In this study, about half of the time that one member of the couple said their partner sacrificed for them, the other partner reported no sacrifice. Perhaps they considered the sacrifice too small to report even though the other person noticed it anyway. Or maybe the first person simply misread the situation and detected a sacrifice where none existed. In either case, this “false alarm” still set in motion a virtuous cycle of gratitude and feeling appreciated, and as a result both were happier with the relationship.

Perhaps the take-home message is this: Relationships are happier and more satisfying when both partners adopt an attitude of gratitude in their daily lives. Show your gratitude for the sacrifices your partner makes for you. Also keep in mind that your partner has made sacrifices you’re unaware of, and show your appreciation for those as well!

References

Visserman, M. L., Impett, E. A., Righetti, F., Muise, A., Keltner, D., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2018). To “see” is to feel grateful? A quasi-signal detection analysis of romantic partners’ sacrifices. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1948550618757599