How Daily Sacrifices Affect Your Relationship

Approach versus avoidance motives for giving in to your partner.

Posted Nov 10, 2020

It’s November, and Amanda and Brendon are discussing plans for Thanksgiving. Amanda had assumed that they'd be spending it with her family, as they usually do. But now Brendon is saying he’d really like to be with his folks for a change. Amanda’s not looking forward to the long drive, but she understands that they don’t often get to see his parents, who’d really like to spend some time with the grandchildren. So, to make her partner happy, she sacrifices her own wishes and does what he wants instead.

Next door, Chloe and Dylan are also discussing their holiday plans. They usually celebrate Thanksgiving at her mother’s house. Dylan isn’t overly fond of Chloe’s mother, and he makes the casual suggestion that they could visit his family for a change this year. He already feels a twinge of guilt because he knows she isn’t happy about the idea, so he tells her he wasn’t really serious, and of course they’d be going to her mother’s as usual.

Relationships inevitably lead to conflicts, which means that partners have to make sacrifices. Both people simply can’t get their way each time, and one will have to yield to the desires of the other on each occasion. But how do these daily sacrifices affect each partner’s satisfaction with the relationship? This is the question that Turkish psychologist Nazli Kayabol and colleagues explored in an article they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

For this study, Kayabol and colleagues recruited 110 heterosexual couples who were either married or in a committed dating relationship. These couples were asked to take part in a two-week diary study. Each day, the partners individually responded to a series of questions.

First, they were asked if they had sacrificed for their partner that day. Then they explained why they had done so, choosing between either “To make my partner happy” or “To avoid feeling guilty.” After that, they responded to a series of questions intended to assess their satisfaction with the relationship.

The researchers hypothesized that the motive for making a sacrifice would influence each partner’s satisfaction with the relationship, and they distinguished two types:

  • Approach motive, in which you choose to sacrifice in ways that benefit the relationship. Giving in to make your partner happy or to balance out exchanges of sacrifices are examples of approach motive. Above, Amanda acted on an approach motive when she agreed to spend the holiday with Brendon’s family, since she knew it would please him and his parents.
  • Avoidance motive, in which you choose to act in ways that manage threats to the relationship. Giving in to your partner to avoid feeling guilty or hurting their feelings are examples of avoidance motive. Above, Dylan followed an avoidance motive when he yielded to Chloe’s preference because he felt guilty about hurting her feelings.

The researchers hypothesized that when one partner’s decision to sacrifice was based on an approach motive, both partners would experience a boost in relationship satisfaction. In contrast, when a sacrifice was based on an avoidance motive, both partners would feel less satisfied with their relationship.

The data generally supported this hypothesis. On days when one partner reported an approach-motivated sacrifice, both partners reported higher than average relationship satisfaction. Likewise, on days when one partner reported an avoidance-motivated sacrifice, both partners reported diminished satisfaction with their relationship.

This finding is interesting because the exact same behavior—making a sacrifice for your partner—had opposite effects on both partners’ relationship satisfaction, depending on the motive behind that behavior.

It’s easier to see this from the perspective of the one who is making the sacrifice. If you give in to make your partner happy, you’re likely to feel good about yourself—you did something nice to improve the relationship. However, if you gave in to avoid feeling guilty, you’re probably going to focus on what the sacrifice cost you—and this will likely make you feel bad.

From the perspective of the other partner, however, the dynamics are more subtle. Our attitudes about our behaviors are influenced by the motives we have for performing them, and these attitudes can affect our mood.

Even if your partner doesn’t know you sacrificed for an approach motive, your boost in mood over the next few hours or days will be evident to your partner. And that will affect your partner’s mood in a positive way as well.

Likewise, when you sacrifice due to avoidance motivation, this is going to negatively impact your mood. Your partner will sense this and be impacted by it as well.

The researchers also found long-term effects on relationship satisfaction for approach versus avoidance sacrifice motives. In particular, this had to do with volatility, or the degree to which each partner’s relationship satisfaction varies from day to day.

When couples habitually act on approach motives when sacrificing, both partners maintain a relatively high but steady level of relationship satisfaction. However, when they typically act on avoidance motives, both partners report greater fluctuations in how satisfied they are with the relationship. Apparently, avoidance motives elicit more conflicting feelings than do approach motives, both for the partner that sacrificed and for the partner that benefited from it.

Relationships always entail making sacrifices. And yet, the attitudes we have toward the sacrifices we make can greatly impact the relationship, both in the moment and in the long run. When we make sacrifices to avoid bad feelings, we set off a vicious cycle in which neither partner is satisfied. But when we sacrifice as a gift to our partner, we set off a virtuous cycle in which both of us benefit.

References

Kayabol, N. B. A., Gonzalez, J.-M., Gamble, H., Totenhagen, C. J., & Curran, M. A. (2020). Levels and volatility in daily relationship quality: Roles of daily sacrifice motives. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520945032