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Dear Valentine: Your Guide to Healthy Sacrifice

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Posted February 14, 2017

Sacrifice is a recurring theme of history’s most enduring love stories. While scientific inquiry into the physiology and psychology of love began only in the second half of the 20th century, current research attests to the appeal of sacrifice as a subject for ancient love poems and modern movies.

Relationship studies show that sacrifice — defined as giving up your own interests for the benefit of your partner — is an important ingredient in a romantic bond.

Melissa Curran, a University of Arizona associate professor in the Family Studies and Human Development program within the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, studies relationship sacrifices.

Curran’s research shows that sacrifices are a key component of healthy romantic relationships, because they demonstrate that individuals are thinking about their partners and their partners’ outcomes. These acts signal an investment in a partner’s well-being and a continued commitment to the relationship.

However, not all sacrifices are equal, and such a positive overture sometimes becomes detrimental. Curran’s most recently published study shows that when individuals make frequent sacrifices and partners have low appreciation for these sacrifices, individuals experience lower relationship satisfaction.

While it might seem callous, Curran’s research indicates that long-term intimacy benefits from strategic thinking.

“If you’re going to give up your own outcomes, it’s better to think beyond how frequently you should sacrifice,” Curran said. “Instead, consider what kind of day you are having, as well as how aware or how much your partner appreciates the sacrifices you’re making. If you’re going to give something up, have it be a meaningful sacrifice that your partner is likely to be aware of or appreciate. Don’t sacrifice because you think you should be doing that. Sometimes it’s better to think about your own outcomes than to be sacrificing for your partner.”

For example, if you sacrifice your time to cook dinner for your partner, do it on a day that’s “low hassle” for you. Sacrifices on these days are beneficial for commitment.

In comparison, on days that are “high hassle” for you, making sacrifices has no association with commitment. And cooking dinner every night may just result in your sacrifice being taken for granted.

“Consider making sacrifices on low-hassle days in an effort to increase relational commitment,” Curran said. “Then don’t worry too much — or at all — about making sacrifices on high-hassle days. Instead, use that energy to focus on whatever is bothering you for that day. Then come back to your relationship again, and the opportunity to make relational sacrifices, when it’s a low-hassle day.”

Each partner’s perception of the quantity and quality of sacrifices also can play a role in relationship satisfaction. There can be strong misconceptions about who is doing what in a relationship. It is a natural tendency to have an actor-observer bias: People tend to make different attributions depending on whether they are the actor or the observer in a situation.

“When it comes to sacrifice in relationships, we often give ourselves credit for thinking about doing something even if we haven’t acted upon that thought,” Curran says. “On the flip side, we underestimate the partner’s sacrifice when they have made the actions. For this reason, it’s good for our own well-being and the health of the relationship to be judicious when making sacrifices.”

The bottom line: Don’t think that you need to make frequent sacrifices, and don’t expect frequent sacrifices from your partner. And don’t waste your sacrifices on overtures that will go unnoticed and unappreciated.

Rather, make your sacrifices count by paying attention to the things that are meaningful, the things that your partner appreciates. Communicate with each other to find out what’s important, and do those things for your partner.

“Relationship science, much like health science, is really important because it has implications for our lives, our health, our well-being, our fitness and our longevity,” Curran said. “Knowing how to interact with your relational partner no matter where you are in your relationship is really meaningful. The research can make a big difference in helping you know how you should spend your time and effort.

“We all have limited time, so you really want to focus on the emotional choices that will best benefit you and your relationship.”

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