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Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Sacrifice In A Relationship: How To Tell The Difference

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Healthy relationships require both sacrifice and compromise on occasion.

You might be looking forward to a night alone, but step up to babysit your partner’s kid because there’s a family emergency.

Similarly, your partner might be absolutely exhausted and want nothing more than to catch up on their favorite show, but they spend an hour or so chopping wood so the house will be warm when you get home.

Making positive sacrifices for one another is a great way to strengthen a relationship.

That said, when one partner is making a ton of sacrifices and the other one isn’t, that creates a serious imbalance.

An example of this could be your partner insisting that you always visit their family during the holidays, but refusing to visit yours in turn. Or they only want to eat one type of meal, and get resentful or upset if you want something different.

These are just a couple of examples, of course. There are many different types of sacrifice and compromise, and a very simple way to determine the difference between what’s good and what’s bad.

How can you tell the difference between good and bad sacrifice?

In simplest terms? By how you feel afterwards.

Let’s say you have a hobby or pursuit that you’re passionate about, but you shelve it for your partner’s benefit. For instance, maybe they have a preferred diet that’s quite expensive to maintain, so you don’t buy materials for your own hobby so they can eat the way they want to.

You may feel like you’re being kind and supportive of their well-being, but you’re suffering because of this sacrifice. Furthermore, if they’re not truly appreciative of what you’ve given up, or they don’t sacrifice for your well-being in turn, you may end up feeling immensely resentful.

So when you have made a sacrifice, ask yourself how you feel about your decision. Whilst little regrets may quickly fade, if you regret the sacrifice in a major way, you’ll know it was a bad sacrifice to make.

If you are contemplating making a sacrifice for your partner – moving to a different city for their new job, for example – picture yourself in whatever this new situation is and be brutally honest with yourself about how you will feel.

If you can see the positives and realize that the negatives can be overcome, you may feel able and willing to make the sacrifice. If you can’t, you need to tell your partner and have a serious conversation about whether this is a sacrifice you feel able to make.

Of course, if you are not willing to sacrifice, it probably means that your partner will have to instead. If you don’t want to move for them to take this new job, they will have to turn it down.

That’s a sacrifice they will have to make, and it’s important that you recognize this fact. Don’t brush it off as somehow less than the sacrifice you would have had to make simply because that new situation was not yet a reality, but rather a possibility, whereas you were giving up your current reality to make way for this as yet intangible reality.

What makes a good sacrifice?

If you think about it, people make little sacrifices for others on a constant basis. But what makes them “good” sacrifices?

When those sacrifices are acknowledged.

Making sacrifices for one’s partner can help to solidify and reinforce a relationship, as long as those sacrifices are seen and acknowledged.

For example, a partner who has trust issues early on in the relationship may see their lover’s sacrifices for them as proof that they’re sincere. That they can be trusted.

As a result, they may feel more confident opening up and letting the other person in more. And they’ll undoubtedly make sacrifices for the one they love in turn.

This will result in both parties seeing what the other gives up for their benefit, and then making sure those actions are acknowledged and reciprocated.

See how this wheel of giving keeps going around?

There are few things more heartwarming and fulfilling than when a partner sits down and lets you know how much they appreciate all that you do for them. That they see your sacrifices, and want to make sure that you’re honored, respected, and supported in turn.

When you are happy that your partner is happy.

For example, we may bend to our partner’s desire to watch a movie that we have no interest in, rather than insisting on the one we wanted, simply because it’ll make them happy. Same goes for allowing the other to choose the restaurant for a night out together.

When a relationship is balanced and healthy, both partners will do these kinds of things for one another. Often with some playful groaning and eye rolling, but they’ll do it nonetheless.

They might even enjoy seeing how happy the other person is when they get to do what they love, even though it’s not enjoyable for them.

As an example, you’ll know your partner adores you when they accompany you to a convention for a subject they have absolutely no interest in, just to be supportive.

Similarly, they’ll know how much you care when you buy them a gift that you can’t stand and don’t ever want to see again, because they’ve mentioned it several times and you’ve bookmarked the sites they sent you about it.

The key here is that the sacrifice you are making for your partner is not something that affects your well-being in any major way. If you are putting your partner’s happiness before yours AND you will actually suffer quite a lot because of the sacrifice, that’s a different matter entirely.

When it helps maintain the bond between partners.

Giving up your alone time to spend time together is a good example of this. As long as this is mutual, and very appreciated, it can be a kind, beautiful type of sacrifice.

We all have a million things to do every day, and many of us find it difficult to get much time to ourselves, if any.

Let’s say that you and your partner both worked long hours, and worked together to get the kids to bed. Now it’s quite late at night, and you’d love to soak in a bath for an hour, and they’re dying to work on a creative project in peace. Instead, you two might decide to curl up on the couch and read together in silence, legs overlapping.

Neither of you is doing exactly what you may have wanted to do with the evening, but you’re compromising in order to show your love and appreciation to the other. This is healthy and “good,” because it’s a joint endeavor. You’re both making sacrifices for the other person, equally, which creates a harmonious balance.

What makes a bad sacrifice?

In contrast, just as there are positive, mutual types of sacrifice that can benefit the relationship, there are also negative ones that can sour it exponentially.

When your sacrifices become expectations.

Let’s say that you make dinner every single night for a month, and then don’t cook on the last night. A partner who doesn’t appreciate you will likely conveniently forget those 29 or 30 amazing meals that you made. Instead, they’ll focus on the one time you “let them down.”

They’ll acclimatize to that kind of behavior from you, and as a result, will get uncomfortable and upset when it doesn’t happen.

Instead of seeing it as an act of love and kindness – and, yes, a sacrifice of your time and energy – they’ll just see it as “how things are.” Why would they reciprocate when that’s the thing you do?

It might not even occur to them to offer to make dinner and give you an evening off. And why should they? This is a routine that they’re comfortable with: it is now an expectation, not something to be appreciated.

For people whose love language is Acts of Service, making sacrifices and going above and beyond for their partner may be the best way they can show their love and devotion. Of course, they’ll need these types of actions to be reciprocated, otherwise they’ll end up feeling unappreciated and used.

When they guilt trip you into making a sacrifice.

Any sacrifice you do make should be one of your own choosing. It should be based on your belief that the sacrifice is worth it for the benefits it brings to you, your partner, or your relationship.

But if your partner tries to guilt trip you into doing something that you don’t really want to do, that’s not cool.

They may make you feel bad if you attempt to deny them something they want. They may complain that you are holding them back or making them unhappy.

They may even bring up past sacrifices that they made for you in an attempt to sway you.

But if you are dead set against the particular sacrifice they are asking you to make, you should not feel pressured into it just because of something they may have done for you previously.

When they try to make you go against your values.

There are some things we do or don’t do because they resonate so strongly with our inner being. These are our values and morals and beliefs that, whilst perhaps not set in stone, are dearly important to us.

If you are considering making a sacrifice that goes against these values, it’s definitely a bad one to make.

As with guilt trips, you shouldn’t feel pressured into doing something just because your partner wants you to.

If they have any respect for you, they’ll understand that it is unacceptable to ask you to go against the beliefs that are important to you.

If they persist regardless of how you feel, you may have to seriously question the relationship and your partner’s commitment to it and you.

When you are denied time and space to yourself.

Everyone needs to have time to themselves. When you have some precious time alone, and your partner makes unreasonable demands on you during that time (especially when they know you want to just decompress and do your own thing), that’s many shades of unhealthy.

This is especially crappy if they make these demands of you, but would get livid if you did the same thing to them.

Some partners who are very insecure don’t like their partners having alone time because of their own trust issues. They’ll assume that you’re talking to someone else, or they’ll take your desire for solitude personally: how dare you want to be alone rather than spending quality time with them?!

When you become their emotional dumping ground.

It can be very frustrating when a partner continually uses you as a sounding board to work through their own difficult emotions. Things get even more frustrating and uncomfortable when they vomit their emotional baggage into your lap and then walk off.

They’ll feel great because they just alleviated a ton of their personal problems. Meanwhile, you’re utterly weighed down by all their drama, doing their emotional labor for them. You literally sacrifice your emotional well-being for the sake of theirs.

This is never okay, especially if and when you don’t live together. Many people find that they’ll give up some of their precious downtime to listen to all their partner’s woes, only to be hung up on as soon as their lover has finished venting.

In essence, the one with all the frustrations is using their partner as a therapist, then walking away. Like dumping a huge bag of trash in the bin and then brushing their hands off. “Glad that’s gone: someone else can deal with it now.”

If this is something your partner does to you on a regular basis, you need to call them out on it.

When the motivation for the sacrifice is avoidance of conflict.

People who continually sacrifice themselves and their needs for their relationship end up being incredibly unhappy.

They continually suppress their own emotions for the sake of maintaining harmony, and set aside their own needs and desires to benefit their partner.

This motivation for harmony in the face of undesirable sacrifices is far from healthy. If you don’t feel able to engage in any sort of conflict with your partner and so bend to their will every time, you will give up so much of what you like and enjoy.

Since you don’t receive the same care, devotion, and giving from the other person, this ends up in a horribly unbalanced dynamic. One person gives and gives, the other takes and takes. After a while, if the giving isn’t reciprocated, that well is going to run dry.

In fact, it won’t just run dry: it’ll be full of dust, and the remnants of the relationship will roll along by like tumbleweeds.

It’s understandable that people sometimes “pick their battles” and choose wisely whether to voice their needs and frustrations. For instance, whether or not to complain when their partner doesn’t do the thing they asked them to.

But when you never pick any battles at all, you are communicating to your partner that they can have what they want every time and do whatever they wish without any pushback.

This leads us to another great way to tell whether the types of sacrifices you’re making in your relationship are “good” or “bad.” Simply ask yourself this one question:

Would your partner do the same for you?

If the answer is yes, then this type of sacrifice is likely on the healthier side.

In contrast, if the answer to that is “oh hell no,” then you have your answer as well.

Still not sure whether the sacrifices you make in your relationship are healthy or unhealthy? Chat online to a relationship expert from Relationship Hero who can help you figure things out. Simply click here to chat.

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About The Author

Catherine Winter is an herbalist, INTJ empath, narcissistic abuse survivor, and PTSD warrior currently based in Quebec's Laurentian mountains. In an informal role as confidant and guide, Catherine has helped countless people work through difficult times in their lives and relationships, including divorce, ageing and death journeys, grief, abuse, and trauma recovery, as they navigate their individual paths towards healing and personal peace.