By Emma Young
You were hoping to go out with friends on Saturday night, but your partner really wants to have a quiet night at home instead…
Your life’s going great, but then your partner is offered their dream job in a town you’d happily never visit, let alone live in…
So what do you do? Do you stand your ground? Or you do you sacrifice your own goals for the sake of your partner’s?
It’s a dilemma familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. It would seem reasonable, then, to assume that research could tell us what the likely impacts would be on individual wellbeing, and on the health of the relationship itself. However, as the authors of a new paper published in Psychological Bulletin point out, there are two conflicting hypotheses for how sacrifices should pan out.
The “benefit hypothesis” holds that making sacrifices can relieve tension in a relationship and help to build a climate of trust and cooperation. According to the “burden hypothesis”, however, when one partner sacrifices a personal goal, and compromises on their autonomy, their own wellbeing takes a hit.
Francesca Righetti at the Free University of Amsterdam led work that set out to look at what actually happens. And the results are fascinating: if you feel that you would in theory be willing to make a sacrifice for your partner, there are benefits for you both. However, when one person actually makes a sacrifice (not just says that they would), it’s a different story.
Righetti and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 82 sets of data on sacrifice and wellbeing in relationships, comprising more than 32,000 people. Only some of the data, collected in nine different countries, had previously been published, and just over half of the data sets came from studies that included same-sex couples, with the rest exclusively focused on mixed-sex couples. The team looked at four different facets of sacrifice: willingness to sacrifice (saying that in theory, you would), behavioural sacrifice (actually sacrificing), satisfaction with a sacrifice and costs of a sacrifice.
They found that when someone reported being willing to make a particular hypothetical sacrifice for their romantic partner, this was linked not only to higher personal wellbeing (more positive emotional states and greater life satisfaction) but also higher “relationship wellbeing” scores both from that individual and also their partner.
The results in relation to actual sacrifices were striking, though. Though the relationship wellbeing scores weren’t affected, the individual’s personal wellbeing ratings were lower when they made more frequent sacrifices.
It’s worth noting that reporting a general willingness to sacrifice and actually regularly making sacrifices for your partner are two very different things — a reported willingness “may only weakly correspond to actually performing these sacrifices in everyday life,” the researchers write.
The data did also reveal, however, that when people said they gained satisfaction from giving up their own goals and preferences in favour of their partner’s, they tended (unsurprisingly) to report more positive personal and also relationship wellbeing than if they had not felt satisfied with their sacrifice. Similarly, when the personal costs of a sacrifice were reported to be higher, the individual’s personal and relationship wellbeing scores also tended to be lower. (This difference may relate simply to the size of the sacrifice — going with your partner’s plans for Saturday night vs agreeing to move to another town or country, for example.)
“Thus,” the team writes, “although results aligned with the benefit hypothesis when considering willingness to sacrifice and satisfaction with sacrifice, data were consistent with the burden hypothesis when considering behavioural sacrifices and costs of sacrifice.”
The researchers also found some gender-related effects. The associations between all four facets of sacrifice and personal and relationship wellbeing were more negative for women than for men. Why? The team suggests that women typically make more sacrifices than men do and so, when they do sacrifice, they may receive less appreciation and gratitude from their partner, and also society in general, than men. Consequently, women may have less positive attitudes towards sacrifice than men, the team suggests.
Why, though, should a reported willingness to sacrifice be linked to various benefits, when actual sacrifices were not?
Feeling willing, in theory, to sacrifice may of course be linked to having a stronger relationship in the first place. Also, people who feel like this may be generally more prosocial in other ways, which could enhance their partner’s own wellbeing and perceptions of the relationship itself.
So what if you’ve just agreed to make a significant sacrifice for your partner, or you’re weighing one up? The researchers have some advice: “Being willing to sacrifice may be valuable for individuals and couples but when people actually perform this behaviour, they maximise their wellbeing when they focus on the gains rather than the losses.”