Imagine the following situations.

  • You and your partner are deciding what to have for dinner. You want sushi, he or she wants pasta. How do you resolve this?
  • You and your partner are deciding on where to go for the holidays. You want an exciting city vacation, he or she wants to relax on the beach. Who gives in?
  • You and your partner are deciding whether it is the right time to have kids. Your partner thinks it is, you would rather wait a bit longer. What do you do?

Relationships are filled with conflicts of interests, both big and small, in which what one partner wants is not aligned with what the other wants. These situations occur on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and can cause stress and strain on the relationship.

One common and useful way to manage these conflicts is for one party to sacrifice his or her preferred choice. Your partner may acknowledge how much you love sushi and decide that they can forgo their pasta for the night, liberating both of you from the conflict at hand. When this happens, do you appreciate your partner for his or her sacrifice? Are you grateful? The answer to this question may depend on one key factor: whether you think that sacrifices are normal in relationships.

We tested this idea in a study with 126 Dutch couples. Each person completed an initial questionnaire on which they indicated how strongly they agreed with the following statements:

  • In general, sacrificing is a necessary component of close relationships
  • It is normal to engage in sacrifices in close relationships
  • People need to sacrifice to preserve a healthy relationship

These items measured how much each participant thought sacrifices were normal and expected in relationships. Then, over the course of 8 days, the same people received a short survey on their mobile phones on which they reported whether their partner had made a sacrifice for them on that day. Additionally, they also rated how much they appreciated their partner and how satisfied they were with their relationship that day.

What we found was that, although sacrifices occurred regularly, people did not always appreciate their partner’s sacrifices. In fact, people who thought that sacrifices are normal and expected in relationships were unmoved by their partners’ sacrifices.  However, people who thought that sacrifices are not necessarily normal and expected did feel more appreciative and were more satisfied with their relationships. In other words, sacrifices were appreciated most by those who didn’t really expect them in the first place.

Does this mean that having lower expectations for how your partner will react to disagreements and conflicts is better for relationships? Sometimes the answer is “yes,” because it provides opportunities for your partner to surpass your expectations, leading you to experience greater appreciation for them and your relationship.  

However, it is important to note that our study did not include highly conflictual and dissatisfied couples. Although speculative, perhaps having low expectations in an unhealthy relationship may do more harm than good. Having low expectations may be beneficial mostly when both partners are already quite satisfied with the relationship, which was the case for the participants in our study.

Another interesting finding from our study was that, within generally happy couples, the two people in a couple didn’t necessarily have the same expectations about sacrifice. In other words, it is possible that one partner in a couple thinks that sacrifices are just a normal part of a relationship, while the other partner may not think so. As expectations are often unconscious, partners may be falling short of one another’s’ expectations without even knowing it!

How to resolve this issue? Although our research did not directly investigate this question, we offer a speculative suggestion: communicate. Talk to your partner about each of your beliefs around what is normal and not normal in relationships. You may discover you have wildly different expectations for how much people should sacrifice in a close relationship, allowing you to clear up possible misunderstandings in the future. And, the next time you and your partner are deciding what to have for dinner and do not agree, stop and wonder: exactly what am I expecting to happen here?

For further reading

Zoppolat, G., Visserman, M. L., & Righetti, F. (2019). A nice surprise: Sacrifice expectations and partner appreciation in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Visserman, M. L., Righetti, F., Impett, E. A., Keltner, D., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2017). It’s the motive that counts: Perceived sacrifice motives and gratitude in romantic relationships. Emotion.

Giulia Zoppolat is a Ph.D. student at Vrije University Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the experience of ambivalence (that is, mixed feelings) in romantic relationships.

Francesca Righetti is an associate professor at Vrije University Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on sacrifice, ambivalence, and close relationship dynamics.