The ebb and flow (but mainly ebb) of willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion in romantic relationships
By: Rebecca Horne, P.H.Ec., MSc
Umi and Sarah are a long-term couple who both have work parties coming up. Although they haven’t overly enjoyed each other’s work parties in the past, they both nevertheless desire the presence of their significant other at these events. As the weekend of Umi’s work party approaches, Umi tells Sarah she is looking forward to having her attend. Even though Sarah would rather stay at home and relax, she resolves this conflict of interest by going because she knows it is important to Umi. One week later, the couple is presented with a similar scenario, but reversed: Sarah wants Umi to attend her work party, but Umi would prefer to stay at home. However, not only does Umi decide to attend Sarah’s party, but she also is battling the flu, missed a very important work meeting to attend the party, and continuously monitors and checks in with Sarah throughout the night to ensure she’s having a good time.
This vignette paints a picture of two similar people, but with an important distinction. Sarah is willing to sacrifice for Umi, or willing to forgo her own self-interest to benefit Umi and their relationship as a whole (1). In contrast, Umi is displaying high levels of unmitigated communion, where she is excessively concerned with meeting Sarah’s needs and neglects her own needs in the process (2).
Giving up one’s self-interest to benefit a partner or relationship is a common (but conflicting) experience in relationships that holds important implications for personal and relationship well-being (3). However, we know little about how these processes play out over time in relationships. For example, in the context of the vignette above, have “Sacrificing Sarah” and “Unmitigated Umi” always been this way in their relationship, or have these characteristics changed across the course of their relationship? Furthermore, what factors may have motivated Sarah and Umi to think and act in these ways in the first place?
Exploring the development of willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion
My colleagues and I tackled these questions by exploring the development of willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion over a seven-year period, as well as what factors might motivate individuals’ likelihood of being (over)sacrificers in their relationships (4). We drew on survey data from 3,405 couples who participated in a large-scale study in Germany. Couples are surveyed annually about their relationships and well-being, including how willing they are to sacrifice their desires for a partner and how often they leave everything else aside to support a partner.
Who is likely to (over) sacrifice? Will I always be this way?
We found that on average, both willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion declined over the seven-year period, with the most pronounced declines occurring earlier on in partners’ relationships. Unmitigated communion also showed a steeper decline overall, which makes some sense—extreme forms of care may be particularly hard to maintain over the long run. But importantly, there was a tremendous amount of diversity underlying these average trajectories: while many declined in sacrifice and unmitigated communion, some individuals became more willing to (over)sacrifice, and some stayed the same across time, with many patterns in between.
If willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion tend to decrease over time, is there anything that motivates people to be higher in these characteristics? We found that partners were more willing to sacrifice at times when they felt highly committed to maintaining their relationship into the future, but even more so when they feared that their partner might withdraw love away from them. In addition, individuals were higher in unmitigated communion at times when both partners felt more satisfied in their relationship and were especially high in giving to the point of self-neglect when they were strongly committed to their partner.
Lastly, both willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion was higher in men, those in shorter-term relationships, and those who had fewer romantic partners in the past.
Our findings suggest that “Sacrificing Sarah” and “Unmitigated Umi” are not nicknames set in stone. The development of sacrifice and unmitigated communion continues to be a dynamic process years into a relationship, and Sarah and Umi may ultimately engage in fewer of these thoughts and behaviors as their relationship progresses. Furthermore, although certain personal insecurities (like being worried that your partner will retract love and care for you) seem to motivate the willingness to forgo self-interest for one’s partner, the desire to maintain one’s relationship into the future seems to be a more prominent driver of extreme care to the point of self-exclusion.
We hope our work prompts you to reflect on whether you are more like Sacrificing Sarah or Unmitigated Umi in your own romantic relationship, how these characteristics may have ebbed and flowed over time, and what drives you to sacrifice or “over-sacrifice” for your partner.
(1) Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S., & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1373–1395. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1683
(2) Helgeson, V. S., & Fritz, H. L. (1998). A theory of unmitigated communion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 173-183. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0203_2
(3) Day, L., & Impett, E. A. (2016). For it is in giving that we receive: The benefits of sacrifice in romantic relationships. In C. Knee & H. Reis (Eds.), Positive approaches to optimal relationship development (pp. 211–231). Advances in personal relationships. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781316212653.011
(4) Johnson, M. D., Horne, R. M., & Neyer, F. J. (2019). The development of willingness to sacrifice and unmitigated communion in intimate partnerships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81, 264-279. doi: 10.1111/jomf.12544
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