The key difference between a compromise and a sacrifice is the amount of effort that each party makes to resolve a disagreement and the magnitude of what they’re giving up to do so. “A compromise happens when both of you make shifts in your behaviors or desires to make your relationship flow again,” says psychologist Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusions of Flawless Relationships. “In a sacrifice, one person is giving up something that they value in order to accommodate the other person’s preferences.”
“A compromise happens when both of you make shifts in your behaviors or desires to make your relationship flow again.” —Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD
Because a compromise springs from a give-and-take method of conflict resolution (e.g., the bigger spender of the couple agrees to make fewer purchases, while the bigger saver concedes certain splurges), it typically involves two-sided action. “Compromises are important in relationships because they keep both people focused on problem-solving in an effective manner,” says Dr. Nerenberg.
And at a basic level, the communication involved in coming to a compromise also helps to create a sense of safety, trust, and cohesion in a relationship, says psychotherapist Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD: “It sends the message that while our wants and needs are important, our partner’s wants and needs are equally important and must also be considered and met when possible.”
Given that a sacrifice similarly involves valuing the needs of a partner (in this case, over your own), it can also support a healthy relationship—particularly when the person sacrificing is doing so explicitly for the benefit of their partner, and not just to circumvent a conflict. In fact, research shows that even just expressing a willingness to sacrifice for a partner can signal a strong level of investment in the relationship and has been associated with personal and relational well-being.
It’s only when one person becomes consistently more willing to sacrifice than the other that the danger of one-sided sacrifice versus mutual compromise rears its ugly head. In this case, the person who’s regularly sacrificing may understandably begin to doubt whether their partner cares about them in a healthy, reciprocal way, says Dr. Fedrick. Not to mention, continually sacrificing could lead a person to frequently “betray their values in an attempt to please their partner,” she adds, “which can detach them from their identity and authentic self.” As you might imagine, that’s also no good for the relationship, which can become disconnected or shallow as a result.
When and how to make healthy sacrifices that benefit your relationship
Offering up a little slack to your partner in the compromise tug-of-war can be a thoughtful, relationship-boosting thing—so long as you're not doing so every time the game is played. To make the call, it's important to consider whether the sacrifice in question would help or harm the relationship by weighing “the overall balance of sacrifices being made by both partners and the ways in which those sacrifices are requested or communicated,” says relationship expert Callisto Adams, PhD. “For example, if one partner is regularly demanding a sacrifice from another or expressing the request as an ultimatum, that’s a clear example of uneven compromising that can endanger the relationship.”
By contrast, having an open conversation about your differing opinions allows you and your partner to each feel like you’re being listened to and that each of your perspectives are valuable, says Dr. Nerenberg. In that context, you’re also more likely to grasp the real benefit your sacrifice stands to give your partner. And according to research, gaining satisfaction from sacrificing for a partner’s sake is associated with positive relational well-being (whereas feeling like the sacrifice came at a high cost to you is linked with just the opposite).
All of that's to say, it’s important to pick your battles. Consider giving in more easily when the sacrifice wouldn’t result in a huge loss and standing firm (while gently asking your partner to respect your side) when one of your core values is on the line, says Dr. Fedrick.
Ultimately, that requires entering any compromise-related conversation calmly and clear-headed. In this mindset, you can work to see the issue from your partner’s side, consider what they’re feeling, and assess whether the end result you envision seems fair for both partners, says Dr. Adams. Not to mention, research says it’s a bad call for your relationship to make a sacrifice when you’re stressed out, anyway (in that scenario, you’re likely to see it as just one more hassle, rather than something helpful or generous).
Whenever you do decide to make a sacrifice, be as straightforward about it as you can be, in order to avoid the situation of you making a concession, without your partner even realizing it. After all, your partner needs to perceive your sacrifice as such in order to feel grateful for it.
In that realm, it’s also wise to let any emotions you have about the sacrifice bubble up, rather than trapping them inside to stew. In fact, research shows that suppressing feelings about a sacrifice can lead to “emotional costs,” and you’d be better off sharing them—á la, “I’ve agreed to go to your family’s place for the holidays, but I want you to know that makes me a little nervous.” That way, your partner can be wholly aware of whatever burden the sacrifice entails for you—and hopefully, take it into account the next time an opportunity for them to make a sacrifice rolls around.
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