Most people make relationship sacrifices in one way or another, but I’m always suspect of people who specifically emphasise them. It’s inevitable that one partner’s interests in a relationship will clash with the other, perhaps only occasionally, perhaps frequently. They get a job at the other end of the country, your family and friends live close by. What to do? When two people have to make this kind of choice, a compromise is eventually reached. New research suggests, though, that it is the way this compromise is interpreted that will have important implications for the relationship.
Two views of sacrifice
Research has seen relationship sacrifice in two markedly different ways (Whitton, Stanley & Markman, 2007). The first sees sacrifice as ‘a good thing’, which is associated with positive aspects of relationships. The idea is that a willingness to make sacrifices for your partner shows you’ve evolved past the early stages of a relationship. Theoretically, then, sacrifice is linked to commitment.
Feminist theory has a quite different take on sacrifice. Feminists point to a finding that women feel they have to make greater sacrifices than men to maintain their relationship. Here, sacrifice is also associated with depression. Similar findings for men have also been reported, although these findings are questioned.
Perception of sacrifice
How can these apparently opposing ideas be resolved? Whitton et al. (2007) suggest that it is not the sacrifice itself, but the way in which the individual views that sacrifice which is most important. To quantify this they created a measure of the perception of sacrifice as harmful to the self.
The results showed that within heterosexual couples, for both men and women, better relationship functioning was associated with sacrifices that were perceived as less harmful to the self. One possible explanation for this would be that higher commitment to a relationship actually lowers the perception that sacrifices are being made.
Unlike relationship functioning, however, connections between measures of commitment and lowered perceptions of sacrifice as harmful were only seen in men (also within heterosexual relationships). Whitton et al. (2007) suggest this might be explained by the finding from feminist theory that women feel a greater need than men to make sacrifices in their relationship.
In other words, women expect to make sacrifices in relationships, whether they are committed or not. As a result women’s perception of sacrifice is unrelated to their relationship commitment. Men, in contrast, only tend to perceive sacrifices as less harmful when they are more committed to a relationship, hence the association.
- This finding is from only one study, which needs to be replicated.
- 90% of the participants were married, all were heterosexual. This may limit the generalisability of the findings.
- Self-report measures are open to all sorts of variances. E.g. the need to present the self in a good light to the researcher.
Nevertheless it certainly provides food for thought about the ways in which we view sacrifice in our relationships.
» This post is part of a series on the psychology of relationships.