Imagine a couple, Sara and David, who had a busy work week and are ready to enjoy a night out now that the weekend has finally arrived. David really wants to see the newest action movie, but Sara wants them to go to her friend’s birthday party and dance the night away. David decides to grant her wish, hoping that Sara will appreciate his kind act. But will Sara actually notice that David made a sacrifice for her? 

Situations like Sara and David’s are common. Couples often encounter situations in which their interests do not align, some as mundane as what to have for dinner and others as substantial as where to live. In many cases, people sacrifice their own self-interest for their partner and the relationship, so they can enjoy a dinner together or settle down in their future home. Although these sacrifices come at the expense of one person’s personal goals and needs, the way partners respond to each other’s sacrifices is a complete game changer. And it all begins with seeing the partner’s sacrifices in the first place.

Thinking about your own romantic relationships, either now or in the past, how aware were you of your partners’ sacrifices? And do you think your partners recognized all of the sacrifices that you made for them? You may have some intuition about how well you see your partner’s sacrifices and how well they see yours, but none of us know for certain. So my colleagues and I conducted studies to find out how attuned partners actually are to each other’s sacrifices and how detecting—or failing to detect—each other’s sacrifices ultimately affects their relationship.

We studied couples in the Netherlands and in the United States during the course of their daily lives. Each day for 8 or 14 days, we separately asked each partner whether they or their partner had sacrificed by doing something they found unpleasant, or not doing what they actually preferred. Mapping the partners’ reports onto each other resulted in four different situations: (1) a hit: David sacrificed, and Lisa also recognized his sacrifice, (2) a miss: David sacrificed, but Lisa was not aware of his sacrifice, (3) a false alarm: David did not make a sacrifice, but Lisa thinks he did, or (4) a correct rejection: David did not sacrifice, and Lisa did not think he did. 

Sacrifice Detection: Did David make a sacrifice?

David says "Yes"

David says "No"

Lisa says "Yes"



Lisa says "No"




Luckily, the couples in our studies did not face these kinds of sacrifice dilemmas every day. After all, Sara and David are facing their dilemma about their Friday evening only on that day. So on another day on which there was no issue to begin with, their interests happily aligned, and Sara was right in believing that David did not sacrifice on that day!

But when partners did make a sacrifice against their own interests, their sacrifices were detected by the other partner only 50% of the time. The other half of partners’ sacrifices were missed entirely. Lisa may have had no idea what David was giving up by agreeing to go to her friend’s party instead of the movie he was excited about seeing.

Intriguingly, about half of the times that partners reported their partner to have sacrificed, these perceptions were actually false alarms. If David wasn’t that excited about seeing the movie and really likes spending time with Sara’s friends, then going to her friend’s birthday party wasn’t really much of a sacrifice, but Sara may think that it was.

Now that we unraveled how well couples detect each other’s sacrifices, how do these perceptions of partners’ sacrifices affect the relationship? Each day of the study, we also asked partners how grateful they felt to each other and how happy they felt in their relationship that day. Feeling grateful toward one’s romantic partner makes partners feel more satisfied in the relationship and motivates them to build a lasting relationship with this wonderful partner. But in order to be grateful to our partner, we first need to be aware that they did something kind for us.

Our studies revealed good and bad news in this respect. To start with the good news:  thinking that their partner made a sacrifice boosted how much gratitude people felt  toward their partner—irrespective of whether their perception was grounded in reality. Sara will feel grateful toward David when she thinks that joining her friends’ party was a sacrifice to him, even if it wasn’t.

The bad news is that the many sacrifices that go unnoticed (50%!) are, of course, not welcomed with gratitude. What could have been an opportunity for Sara to feel grateful toward David and strengthen their relationship instead leaves him feeling unappreciated and unhappy. After all, he did make a sacrifice for Sara, but she didn’t recognize his kind act. Thus, seeing partners’ sacrifices is crucial for these important feelings of gratitude to occur—even when a sacrifice did not actually occur.

So, the next time you think that maybe your partner went out of their way to do something nice for you, give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if they did not actually sacrifice, your simple expression of gratitude will go a long way in securing a happy and lasting relationship!

For Further Reading

Visserman, M. L., Impett, E. A., Righetti, F., Muise, A., Keltner, D., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2019). To “see” is to feel grateful? A quasi-signal detection analysis of romantic partners’ sacrifices. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 317-325. Click here to read the full article.

Mariko L. Visserman is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and York University in Canada, where she pursues her interest in the topic of sacrifice in romantic relationships.