Monday, July 9, 2012

After the Sacrifice: Doing it for the Right Reasons

This is the third in a three-part post on sacrifice in relationships. In Part I, I talked about the pros and cons of sacrificing for the ones we love. In Part II, I suggested some questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether or not to make a major sacrifice. Today, in Part III, I focus on sacrificing for the right reasons.

So you've made the move
So you’ve decided to make the cross-country move for your spouse’s new job, skip your important work event to attend your partner’s family reunion, or make a long commute to live closer to your partner’s job. Even after the decision has been made and the bags are packed, it is important to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Research shows that people engage in sacrifice for many different reasons, and not all of them lead to happily ever after. Sacrificing for the wrong reasons may be worse than no sacrifice at all.

Are you making the move to make your partner happy and keep your relationship going, or to avoid having conflict with your partner? Sacrifices made for approach-motivated reasons, such as making your partner happy, are beneficial. People who sacrifice for these reasons are happier and have more satisfying relationships. In contrast, sacrifices made for avoidance-motivated reasons, such as avoiding conflict, can be detrimental. People who sacrifice for these reasons are less happy and have less satisfying relationships. You might think, well I might feel bad, but at least my partner will reap the benefits of my sacrifice. It turns out that is not the case – when people believe their partners sacrificed for avoidance –motivated reasons, they feel less satisfied with the relationship.

Although sacrificing to make a partner happy can be a good thing, it may be trouble if you find yourself constantly sacrificing out of a desire to be the “good” partner and make your partner happy at the cost of your own happiness. People who are high in unmitigated communion prioritize other needs above their own. While prioritizing someone else’s needs is the hallmark of a close relationship, it can be costly for self-esteem and mental health if it means neglecting your own needs.

Along similar lines, you should ask yourself whether your sacrifice was motivated by a desire to help your partner or if you did it so that you could hold the sacrifice over your partner’s head. Genuinely helping is healthy, but using sacrifice as a bargaining chip in your relationship may lead to resentment from your partner.

Sacrificing in order to ensure that your partner owes you may likewise be problematic. Although there is nothing wrong with negotiating with your partner when deciding whether or not to sacrifice, choosing to make a sacrifice and then silently expecting your partner to take the fall the next time may mean disappointment for both of you. In close relationships, people typically hold communal expectations – believing their partner will help them when they need it and not expecting to be paid back in kind. In fact, people can actually become upset when a close partner tries to pay them back as if they were a stranger. So finding out that your partner sacrificed in order to ensure you would make a sacrifice the next time may be a disheartening realization indeed.

What's your reason?
You may (reasonably) be thinking to yourself, “of course genuine sacrifices are good and selfish sacrifices are bad.” The point I make today is not a subtle one, but it is worth discussing because it can be difficult for us to be honest with ourselves about our reasons for engaging in certain behaviors. We often want to see ourselves in a more positive light. Thus, I urge you to think carefully when you consider your reasons for sacrifice. Why did you do it and what are your expectations now that it is done? Will you be upset if your partner doesn’t thank you for your sacrifice every day or doesn’t automatically assume the next one is on him?

Do you think it is okay to have expectations for your partner after you make a big sacrifice? Would you prefer your partner to sacrifice for avoidance-motivated reasons or not at all?

Further Reading:

Impett EA, Gable SL, & Peplau LA (2005). Giving up and giving in: the costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in intimate relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 89 (3), 327-44 PMID: 16248717

Clark, M. S, & Mills, J. (1986). Keeping track of needs in communal and exchange relationships Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51 (2), 333-338 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.51.2.333


  1. I think this is really good blog post about sacrificing. And it can be example for positive and negatibe reinforcement.Positive reinforcement is sacrifice and move to make your partner happier,Increase sacrificing in the future because you are thinking about how to make your partner happier. Positive reinforcement involves a behavior that leads to a reinforcing or rewarding effect.
    In negative reinforcement people sacrifice and move to avoid a conflict , neagtive reinforcement also increase possibilities to sacrifice and move because they want to avoid a conflict between partner. Negative reinforcement involves behavior that leads to avoidance of or escape from an aversive or punishing event.

    1. I could see how engaging in sacrifice for these different reasons could lead to different types of reinforcement, though I don't think there is any research on that. Interesting idea!

      Thanks for reading,

  2. I usually feel like negative reinforcement proves difficult to explain. It's a stimulus that somehow activates a behavior, but in most cases a positive reinforcement appears less harmful. Can a person truly know the benefits of a positive reinforcement without prior exposure to it's counterpart? I do like your incorporation of the approach and avoid concept while relating it to sacrifices in an intimate relationship.