Sacrifice is Necessary in Marriage…BUT It’s Not All the Same

Marital happiness and stability require sacrifice. In fact, you have to Give It Up to Lift Up Your Marriage. An act of sacrifice communicates value to your spouse and commitment to your marriage. Acts of sacrifice promote a sense of security, safety, and peace in your spouse (The Lost Art of Sacrifice).  BUT, not all sacrifice is the same. The difference, according to a study published in 2019, is not in the sacrifice but in the eye of the beholder. Specifically, the authors of this study concluded that “perceiving a partner’s sacrifice had no effect on appreciation [gratitude and respect for spouse] or relationship satisfaction when the recipient held strong sacrifice expectations” (italics added).  

What? An expectation of sacrifice can hinder our appreciation of the sacrifice and the one sacrificing? Hold on a second. Wait…let’s look a little closer.

If we have a strong expectation that our partner should sacrifice for us, many of their sacrificial acts will be considered minimal. They will not meet our standard. After all, their sacrifice was expected. We assumed they would do it. We deserved it. We had it coming because they are our spouse. It only right that our spouse “give it up” for us. That’s what they’re supposed to do in marriage. In a sense, we feel entitled to such sacrifice. We don’t see our partner as “giving it up” for our marriage, but as offering what I’m entitled to in a marriage anyway. It’s hard to find gratitude and respect in that sense of entitled expectation.

On the other hand, if we have a low expectation that our partner will sacrifice for our marriage, then any act of sacrifice is appreciated. We have confidence in our spouse’s desire to strengthen the relationship, but we are pleased to see their actions communicating that desire. We trust our spouse to support our marriage, but we stand amazed at how much they are willing to give up to make our marriage stronger. We recognize that our spouse is a flawed human being and admire their intent to express their love through sacrifice. Not expecting this sacrifice, we receive it as a gift, a grace, an expression of love.

Let me add one more caveat as I think about this study…just a thought about expectations of sacrifice in marriage. Perhaps we need to change our focus. Rather than focus on my expectation about my partner’s willingness to sacrifice, I need to focus on my willingness to sacrifice for my partner. After all, we are not called to look out for our own personal interests (AKA—how much my partner should sacrifice for me) but also for the interests of others (AKA—how much I will sacrifice for my partner). This shift in thinking changes everything. Anything my spouse does is over and above any expectation I have about their sacrifice for me because my expectation is focused on my willingness to sacrifice for them. I’m not even focused on their level of sacrifice. I’m focused on my desire to sacrifice for the one I love.  

Now imagine if my spouse and I both hold this perspective. I will sacrifice to live up to my expectation about how much I desire to sacrifice for my spouse. My spouse, focused on her own desire to strengthen our marriage through sacrifice, will focus on her desire to sacrifice for me. As we do, we are both filled with joy because of our partner’s sacrifices, the sacrifices we never expected. We create an upward cycle of gratitude, respect and marital satisfaction by carrying out our expectation of how “my” desire to sacrifice for our marriage. Now that sounds like the kind of marriage I’m talking about!

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