It’s simple to envisage a good relationship compromise’s “happily ever after”: Because one person’s preferences place them on one side of an issue while the other is squarely on the other, each spouse compromises just enough to meet in the middle.
For some conflicts of opinion, this form of compromise is certainly conceivable, but not all topics have a clear middle ground. In order to get over an obstacle, one partner may need to sacrifice or give up their investment. Both sacrifice and compromise can be helpful in a healthy relationship, but it’s important to know when to use each one so that you don’t end up resentful.
The main distinction between a compromise and a sacrifice is the amount of effort each party puts in to resolve a conflict, as well as the quantity of what they’re willing to give up in the process.
According to psychologist Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusions of Flawless Relationships, “a compromise arises when both of you make modifications in your behaviors or desires to make your relationship flow again.” “A sacrifice is when one person gives up something they value in order to suit the preferences of another.”
“A compromise happens when both of you make shifts in your behaviors or desires to make your relationship flow again.” —Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD
The main distinction between a compromise and a sacrifice is the amount of effort each party puts in to resolve a conflict, as well as the quantity of what they’re willing to give up in the process. According to psychologist Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusions of Flawless Relationships, “a compromise arises when both of you make modifications in your behaviors or desires to make your relationship flow again.” “A sacrifice is when one person gives up something they value in order to suit the preferences of another.”
Because a compromise is based on a give-and-take technique of dispute resolution (for example, the couple’s bigger spender agrees to make fewer purchases while the couple’s bigger saver accepts certain splurges), it usually requires two-sided action. “Compromises are important in partnerships because they keep both people focused on solving problems in an efficient way,” says Dr. Nerenberg.
Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, a psychologist, says that the conversation needed to reach a compromise also helps to build safety, trust, and unity in a relationship: “It sends the message that, while our wants and needs are important, our partner’s wants and needs are equally important and must be recognized and met whenever possible.”
Because a sacrifice entails prioritising a partner’s needs (in this case, over your own), it can help to maintain a good relationship—especially if the one sacrificing is doing so explicitly for the benefit of their spouse, rather than just to avoid a quarrel. In fact, research shows that just wanting to make sacrifices for a partner shows a high level of commitment to the relationship and has been linked to happiness in both the individual and the relationship.
The danger of one-sided sacrifice versus mutual compromise only becomes apparent when one person is consistently more willing to sacrifice than the other. According to Dr. Fedrick, a person who consistently sacrifices may begin to wonder if their spouse cares about them in a healthy, reciprocal way.
Not to mention that constantly sacrificing can cause a person to “betray their principles in an attempt to please their partner,” which can “detach them from their identity and real self,” she says. As you can expect, this isn’t healthy for the relationship, which can end up feeling distant or superficial as a result.
When to make healthy sacrifices for your relationship and how to do so
In the compromise tug-of-war, cutting your spouse some leeway can be a considerate, relationship-building gesture—as long as you don’t do it every time the game is played. Relationship specialist Callisto Adams, PhD, recommends examining “the overall balance of sacrifices being made by both partners and the ways in which those sacrifices are demanded or communicated.”
“For example, if one partner constantly asks the other to make a sacrifice or gives an ultimatum, that’s a clear sign of unequal sacrifice that could put the relationship at risk.”
According to Dr. Nerenberg, having an open discussion about your differing viewpoints allows you and your partner to both feel as if you’re being heard and that each of your perspectives is significant. In that light, you’re also more likely to see the true value of your sacrifice to your partner.
And, according to research, finding satisfaction in sacrificing for the sake of a spouse is linked to positive relational well-being (whereas feeling like the sacrifice came at a high cost to you is linked with just the opposite).
To put it another way, it’s critical to pick your battles. Dr. Fedrick says to give in more easily when the loss won’t be too big and to stand firm (but gently ask your partner to respect your point of view) when one of your core beliefs is at stake.
Finally, entering into any compromise-related dialogue calmly and clearly is required. According to Dr. Adams, if you approach the problem from your partner’s perspective, examine what they’re feeling, and assess whether the final result you envision is fair to both parties, you’ll be able to perceive the problem from their perspective.
Not to mention, research shows that making a sacrifice for your relationship when you’re stressed out is a bad idea (you’re more likely to regard it as just another inconvenience, rather than something helpful or nice).
If you do decide to make a sacrifice, be as forthright as possible about it to prevent the circumstance where you make a concession without your partner understanding it. After all, in order for your spouse to be appreciative of your sacrifice, he or she must recognize it as such.
In that arena, it’s also a good idea to let any feelings you have about the sacrifice out rather than bury them. In fact, research shows that repressing thoughts about a sacrifice might result in “emotional costs,” so it’s best to share them—a la, “I’ve decided to go to your family’s house for the holidays, but I want you to know that makes me a bit worried.” So, your partner will know exactly how hard the sacrifice is for you, and hopefully they will think about it the next time they have the chance to make a sacrifice.