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The Proper Way to Sacrifice in Your Relationship

"Sacrificing your happiness for the happiness of the one you love, is by far, the truest type of love." This famous quotation says it all: Making sacrifices, whether big or small, is a crucial ingredient of successful relationships. Unfortunately, making sacrifices for our partners or our relationships doesn’t always feel good. Compromising one’s goals and desires can sometimes bring about anger, sadness, and resentment. People cope with these emotions in different ways: While some people openly express their feelings, others choose to hide their feelings from their partners. Who’s right? What is the better way to cope with not-so-good feelings that can come with making a sacrifice?

To answer this question, researchers followed 80 couples for 3 months.1 These couples, while being observed by the researchers in the lab, were asked to talk about a sacrifice they each made for their partners. They then completed a questionnaire every day for 2-weeks, followed by a final questionnaire 3 months later. Repeating the same questionnaire multiple times is a very fruitful method: It not only allows the researchers to compare how an individual was at different time points, but also to explore whether early events have any influence on subsequent outcomes. 

What did this method reveal? Couple members who suppressed (i.e., didn't share) their feelings when discussing or making sacrifices experienced more negative emotion, greater relationship dissatisfaction, and more conflicts with their partners. To top it off, these individuals also reported having more thoughts of breaking up with their partners over the 3 month follow-up period. To shed light on these findings, the researchers explained that suppression of emotions means there is a discrepancy between how you act and how you truly feel. Therefore, the negative consequences described above may result from the suppressors’ sense that they are not being true to themselves.

But wait, the negative impact of suppressing feelings doesn’t stop there. On days when someone made a sacrifice, the recipients (or benefactors) of the sacrifices also reported more negative emotions and poorer relationship quality when their sacrificing partners suppressed their emotions compared to times when no suppression took place.1 In other words, when people hide their negative feelings from their partners after making a sacrifice for them, both partners end up suffering. Although it makes sense that people would want to hide their negative emotions in an effort to maintain closeness and/or avoid conflict, suppression may actually be counter-productive and actually cancel out the benefits of the sacrifice. 

So, if you want your sacrifice to be worth it, don’t hide your feelings from your partner, even if your feelings are negative. This is not to say you should bring down the wrath of negative emotions you may experience onto him/her (as research2 and life experience have yet to prove this method to be effective). Rather, try to find a constructive solution (e.g. discussing the problems, find support for yourself) or stay put in the relationship and hold on to the belief that the situation will improve.2

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1Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., English, T., John, O., Oveis, C., Gordon, A. M., & Keltner, D. (2012). Suppression sours sacrifice: Emotional and relational costs of suppressing emotions in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 707-720.

2Rusbult, C. E., Johnson, D. J., & Morrow, G. D. (1986). Determinants and consequences of exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect: Responses to dissatisfaction in adult romantic involvements. Human Relations, 39, 45-63. 

Sonia Ip - Graduate Student, Clinical Psychology, The Australian National University
Sonia is a Registered Psychologist in Australia and is currently a doctoral student. Her thesis examines the role of alcohol in the early stages of romantic relationships, as well as the characteristics of intimate relationships among individuals with alcohol use disorders.

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