Will Sacrifice Strengthen Or Destroy Your Relationship?

Psychologist Francesca Righetti reveals why sacrifice can be costly to your relationship and mental health.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 30, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of the Current Opinion in Psychology breaks down the nature of sacrifice and demonstrates the different ways in which it affects a romantic relationship.

I recently spoke to psychologist Francesca Righetti to understand why sacrifice could negatively impact a relationship. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of sacrifice?

Couples often encounter situations of conflict of interests, that is, situations where their preferences do not match, and often one of the partners gives up their preference for the other.

This behavior is called sacrifice.

From past scientific work, it was not clear whether sacrifice was beneficial or detrimental for people and their relationships. I was curious to find out, and also to know more about how couples should behave under these difficult decisions.

In pop culture, sacrifices in relationships are typically viewed as honorable and overall positive actions. According to your study, is this true? If not, why?

It is certainly honorable to put aside one's own self-interest (i.e., pursuing their own preference) because of the partner or the relationship. And partners who receive a sacrifice often feel grateful and loved.

However, our research shows that there is a difficult aftermath for both the giver and the recipient. The giver experiences lower well-being after sacrificing and the recipient starts having mixed feelings about the sacrifice and the partner.

On one hand, they feel grateful, loved, and accepted, but they also feel guilty and in debt.

And we know that having mixed feelings is not good for relationships.

Can you explain how sacrifice differs from prosocial behaviors and describe why it can be detrimental to personal well being?

Sacrifice is a prosocial behavior that involves giving up one's own preferences or goals for others. When people engage in prosocial behavior, but it's their first preference (that is, they do not need to give up something else they would rather do or have), this is not a sacrifice.

Sacrifice occurs when people subordinate their preferences and goals to the partner or the relationship.

As such, sacrifice is an exceptionally costly form of prosocial behavior.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who are in relationships and wonder if they should make sacrifices in hopes that it will improve their relationship?

Our findings show that the appraisal of the sacrifice is crucial. If people focus on what they have lost after a sacrifice (e.g., the costs), they will experience lower personal well-being and relationship satisfaction.

However, if they focus on what they have gained (e.g., the benefits) then they experience improved well-being and relationship satisfaction.

That said, our studies also show that, on average, people tend to experience lower personal well-being, which seems to indicate that people, on average, do not focus on the benefits enough.

Thus, one simple solution to feel better after a sacrifice and improve one's relationship is to look at the bright side of the sacrifice (e.g., look at how happy the partner is, or what they can learn from this experience, or feel proud of being such a generous person).

And the recipient can also do something about how the giver will reappraise their sacrifice.

In fact, a recent study that we conducted showed that the recipient can also help the giver to feel better about their sacrifice by validating and appreciating the sacrifice.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

Yes, we found that women were especially likely to experience lower well-being after having sacrificed.

We are not sure about the reasons for this gender difference but we think that it may be that women may sacrifice more in their relationship and that, because of gender roles, they are also expected to sacrifice more and they do not receive as much appreciation and validation as men for their sacrifices.

In sum, they may especially experience the costs and very little of the benefits (e.g., gratitude, validation, recognition etc).

Do you have plans for follow-up research?

We are now looking at the consequences of compromises, that is, situations in which both the partners decide to give up a little bit of their preferences to find an "in-between" solution. Are compromises less detrimental than sacrifices?

We are also looking at the way couples communicate about their sacrifices. Is it better to tell your partner about the costs and benefits you incurred for your sacrifice? And if so, how should you communicate about your sacrifice to improve your relationship and also to feel better about your sacrifice?