How Making Sacrifices For Your Partner Can Make You Happier

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
By Jeff Bowen

Why do we make sacrifices for our loved ones? Research tells us that our commitment is what motivates our willingness to sacrifice. In order to do so, we have to resist the gut-level urge to act selfishly and instead focus on the long-term benefits to our relationship. Of course, some sacrifices are easier to make than others. Taking out the trash for a spouse doesn’t take the same kind of effort as temporarily supporting him or her financially. And, just because we’re motivated to address our partners' needs does not necessarily mean we're able to. Forgoing self-interest can require a great deal of mental effort, or executive control
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Executive control is a label psychologists use for a collection of mental abilities that help people work toward achieving their goals. This includes things like resisting temptation, switching quickly between tasks (or multitasking), and remembering new information. Researchers in the Netherlands were interested in learning whether executive control also enables sacrifice in relationships. In a first study, they asked 44 young adults in relationships to fill out a survey about their commitment — and then complete a tricky task to test their levels of executive control. 

Basically, participants were shown words on a computer screen, one at a time — written in blue, red, or white font. The words themselves were either emotional (e.g., “smile”) or non-emotional (e.g., “table”). If a word was white, they had to press one of two keys to categorize it as emotional or non-emotional. If a word was blue or red, they had to press one of two keys to categorize it as blue or red.  So, white words had to be classified by meaning, and blue or red words had to be classified by color.

Related: The Proper Way To Sacrifice In Your Relationship

Because this task requires keeping a lot of separate information and categories in your head, it takes a good deal of executive control. People who categorized more words correctly were considered higher in executive control. Next came the sacrifice task. People were shown two similar pictures and were asked to find the difference between them, just like in children’s games. If they found the difference, they could win their partner a prize. The twist was that the two pictures were identical (sneaky researchers).

So, the participants could either persist for a long time at this frustrating challenge, or they could give up but not win a prize for their partners. Those who spent more time looking were given higher scores for sacrifice, because they pushed on through the impossible task in hopes of benefitting their partners.

Related: Emotions During Conflict Between Partners

In their second study, the researchers brought in couples together. Once again, participants filled out commitment surveys. But, this time, they did a different executive-control activity: They were shown 45 letters on a screen, one at a time. For every letter they saw, they had to press one of two buttons indicating whether that letter was the same or different from the letter they saw two letters ago (again, a lot to keep in your head). 
Then, to measure sacrifice, one partner was randomly chosen to do a frustrating task, while the other could watch entertaining videos. The frustrating task required typing out random strings of text for as long as possible (“7seww9vYLzIvv9N2Vyg”). These typing participants were told they could stop whenever they wanted, but then their partners would have to stop watching the fun videos and take over.

Because there would be obvious consequences (for their partners) if the participants stopped doing the frustrating task, the sacrifice here was even more meaningful than in the previous study, where stopping the task only meant the partner didn’t win anything. The more text strings the participant typed out, the higher the sacrifice score. In both studies, the researchers found that partners who had greater executive control sacrificed more. They searched longer for the difference between the identical pictures and they typed out more letter strings.

Partners who reported more commitment on the surveys also sacrificed more, but executive control was more strongly related to their sacrificing behaviors. Overall, these studies showed that commitment to a partner isn’t always enough on its own to promote sacrifice, especially when the sacrifice requires considerable time and work. While sometimes it seems like we can effortlessly and automatically meet our partners’ needs, there are other times when we have to exert some mental effort to get past our own self-serving desires. So, even if it's tough to abandon your Netflix queue and do the dishes, the effort you put into helping your partner could pay off for you both.

Next: I Would Do Anything For Love, But I Have No Self-Control
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