It is probably easy for most people who have been in a long-term relationship to think of a time (probably many times!) when they gave up something they wanted for their partner. These relationship sacrifices can be quite costly, since they’re often time consuming and undesirable activities, like spending a Saturday night with your partner’s friends instead of your own. In this article, I want to talk about the silver lining of making sacrifices—the benefits that we don’t always think about when we’re stuck in traffic to pick up a partner’s dry cleaning or watching Love Actually for the 12th time.
Romantic partners depend on each another to get their needs met. Generally, this is a good thing, as it’s part of what makes romantic relationships fulfilling.1 However, when people depend upon one another to get their needs met, there will inevitably be situations in which partners’ respective needs conflict with one another. Imagine a couple who wants to go out to dinner on Friday night: if one partner wants Italian but the other partner wants sushi, it’s impossible for them to both get what they want – one partner must make a sacrifice for the other. These types of dilemmas happen all the time and in many different domains in romantic relationships, like finance, chores, and sex.2 In such situations one or both partners will have to sacrifice their own self-interest for the other. Giving up the things that you want for your partner may seem negative, but research shows that when people are willing to sacrifice in their relationship, both partners reap important benefits.
One obvious benefit of sacrifice in relationships—for the recipient at least—is that he or she gets what they want. Whether it’s to relax on Saturday morning rather than having to take the car to the mechanic or to go on a ski vacation rather than on a trip to Europe, the recipient of a sacrifice gets the tangible benefit of having their needs met by their partner. In addition to having their own needs met, the recipient of a sacrifice will also see that their partner is invested in and committed to the relationship.3 In fact, on days when people report more acts of sacrifice for their partners, their romantic partners report enhanced relationship quality.4 Thus, the recipient of a sacrifice receives two main benefits: their needs are being met, and their partner is conveying care and concern for their relationship.
But the story doesn’t end there—givers benefit too. The act of making a sacrifice for a partner allows people to think of themselves as good and responsive relationship partners.5 Givers may also benefit from seeing that their partners are grateful to them after they make a sacrifice.3 This gratitude in turn is related to stronger, more satisfying relationships.6 Indeed, on days when people report making small sacrifices for their romantic partner, they tend to report higher relationship quality.7 So next time you’re watching your partner try on clothes at the mall, cat-sitting for your in-laws, or taking out the trash for the third week in a row, just think of the silver lining: you’re really improving your relationship overall.
If you’re interested in learning more about what relationship science has to say about sacrifice in relationships please feel free to check out our most recent review chapter8 by clicking here.
1Kelley, H. H. & Thibaut, J. W. (1978). Interpersonal relations: A theory of interdependence. New York, NY: Wiley.
2Impett, E. A., & Gordon, A. M. (2008). For the good of others: Toward a positive psychology of sacrifice. In S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people volume 2, (pp. 79-100). Westport, CT: Praeger Pubslishers.
3Joel, S., Gordon, A., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1333-1345.
4Reis, H., Maniaci, M., & Rogge, R. (2014). The expression of compassionate love in everyday compassionate acts. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 651-676.
5Holmes, J. G., & Murray, S. L. (1996). Conflict in close relationships. In E. T. Higgins and A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 622-654). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
6Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It's the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 217-233.
7Ruppel, E. K., & Curran, M. A. (2012). Relational sacrifices in romantic relationships Satisfaction and the moderating role of attachment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 508-529.
8Day, L. C., & Impett, E. A. (2016). For it is in giving that we receive: The benefits of sacrifice in romantic relationships (pp. 211-231). In C. Knee & H. Reis (Eds.), Advances in Personal Relationships, Vol. 1: Positive approaches to optimal relationship development. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Lisa Day, M.A.
Lisa’s research focuses on how people make decisions in their romantic relationships, and how individual differences can influence those decisions. In one line of research Lisa focuses on how communal motivation influences decisions to engage in sex with a partner, and decisions to make sacrifices for a partner. In a second line of research, Lisa is looking at how narcissistic individuals use social comparison information in the domain of sexuality to maintain their grandiose self-views and evaluate their relationships.