In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Bella offers to give up her human life to become a vampire in order be with her 104-year-old vampire boyfriend, Edward, forever. This ultimate sacrifice, driven by “true love,” is only one of many types of sacrifices that people make on an everyday basis for their intimate relationships. Relationship scientists refer to these behaviors as “willingness to sacrifice,”1 which can run the gamut from minor and short term inconveniences, such as having to go to your partner’s work party on Friday night when you would rather stay home and watch The Bachelor on TV, to much more substantial or long-term sacrifices, such as jumping in front of a runaway pick-up truck to save your partner’s life.
What makes someone give so much of themselves for their relationship? Over time, our motivations change in relationships. As people get closer, this transformation of motivation1 makes people act in ways that maintain or benefit the relationship, even if it hurts or inconveniences them. Going to your partner’s work party may not be your ideal way to spend Friday night, but your presence may support their career, which may have benefits for the relationship. Deciding to act for your own benefit and watch The Bachelor may communicate to your partner that your needs are more important than your relationship. Are you willing to put off your own self-interest for the well-being of your partner and relationship? Research has shown that the more committed and satisfied people are in their relationships, the more they are willing to sacrifice for their partner when this kind of hard decision has to be made.2
Can you ever give too much? Will Smith’s character in the 2008 movie Seven Pounds committed suicide in order to donate his heart to a woman that he loved; people will do extra-ordinary things for love. But, what if you feel like you are the one doing all the sacrificing? The recent pop hit “Grenade” by Bruno Mars (see below) illustrates the pain of someone who is willing to do anything for their love, but their partner does not feel the same way. Over time, investments and sacrifices that are not perceived to be equal can feed into feelings of dissatisfaction. However, these perceptions are all in the eye of the beholder. What may seem like a huge sacrifice to you may not feel like one for someone else. One good sign is to evaluate whether each sacrifice you make brings greater levels of trust and growth in your relationship; if so, then you may be on the right track.
1Rusbult, C. E., Olsen, N., Davis, J. L., & Hannon, P. A. (2001). Commitment and relationship maintenance mechanisms. In J. Harvey & A. Wenzel (Eds.), Close romantic relationships: Maintenance and enhancement (pp. 87-113). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
2Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.