Sacrifice: An Unexpected Answer to Family Challenges

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"In this world, it is not what we take up, but what we give up that makes us rich."

Henry Ward Beecher

Michael Ruse and Julie Dodger had been engaged for six months, but the closer they got to the wedding, the more concerned they were about the marriage. Julie was willing to move to a new location, and Michael was willing to attend all of her family gatherings. When they did the math, it should have worked out. But according to Julie, Michael didn’t earn enough, didn’t listen well enough, and didn’t compromise. And according to Michael, Julie was intolerant, disorganized, and high maintenance. They worried that their differences were irreconcilable.

Through discussion, Michael and Julie came to realize that although their problems were very real, their strengths were real as well, and they showed those strengths best when they sacrificed for one another. Julie felt like it was easier to appreciate Michael when she cleaned her apartment for him and when she forgave his imperfections, and Michael knew from experience that his love for Julie grew when he sacrificed his evening sports show to hear about her day. By focusing on sacrificing for each another, the couple gained the courage to move forward in their relationship. They learned that mutual love grows as we serve and sacrifice for each other.

A Contrary Culture

The couple was surprised at first that a simple principle like sacrifice provided a solution to their problems. We can understand their skepticism. American culture doesn’t value sacrifice as much as it values individuality. Self-care and science are the songs of our day, not sacrifice!

But perhaps what we need is the simple reminder of the truth spoken by Jesus: “[H]e that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39).

The Great Paradox

There is a certain inevitability that as one struggles to foster someone else’s growth, one’s own growth, in one way or another, is also fostered. –Dag Hammarskjold1 

Sacrifice is a willingness to “forego immediate self-interest to promote the well-being of a partner or relationship”10 (p. 1374). We frequently see this kind of sacrifice in family relationships. Consider these examples: 

Parenting Relationships: A new mother sacrifices much-needed sleep in order to feed her hungry infant.  

In the case of childrearing, sacrifice is not just a nicety—it is a necessity. The Family: A Proclamation to the World describes some important parental sacrifices:

Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.

Marriage Relationships: A husband sacrifices his weekend plans with friends to take his wife on a date.

Marriage requires a lot of sacrifice. Fortunately, sacrifice is easier for people who are united. “For those individuals who have a strong sense of couple identity..., and are therefore more interested in the well-being of the couple unit than their own individual gains, it is theorized that acts of sacrifice will be easier because they do not feel like they are as much of a sacrifice”11 (p. 174). When a couple feels committed and unified, sacrifice is a blessing rather than a burden.

Family Relationships: A child sacrifices his lunch money for his younger sister when she forgets hers.

Children benefit from the sacrificial examples of their parents. As recipients of their parents’ sacrifices, they also learn how to sacrifice. In this way, sacrifice makes it more likely for family members to reciprocate good behaviors. The result is a more generous, hospitable home atmosphere.

A Responsibility and a Reward

Sacrifice is so common in family life that we often fail to notice it.  Sacrifice can be active (doing something against your own inclination in order to please someone you love) or passive (not doing something that you’d like to do in order to please someone you love). It may seem costly at times, but sacrifice is a gift with many rewards.   

Research shows that greater sacrifice leads to happier, longer-lasting relationships. Scholars include it with other “transformative processes” like forgiveness, commitment, and sanctification. Though the reasons why sacrifice is so important to families have not all been identified, some researchers have noted that “sacrifice has surplus value, yielding positive consequences for the partner above and beyond any direct impact on experienced outcomes”10 (p. 1376). Rather than leaving us empty, sacrifice actually makes us full.

Motive Matters

Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly , or of necessity . . . (2 Corinthians 9:7).

 Not all sacrifice is created equally. People can sacrifice with two types of motives:

Approach motives seek to obtain positive outcomes. For example, a man could buy flowers for his wife because he loves her and wants her to be happy.

Avoidance motives seek to avoid negative outcomes.  For example, the same man could buy flowers for his wife for Valentine’s Day because he knows that she would be mad if he didn’t.

Research shows that approach motives are better than avoidance motives. It’s easy to see why. The man who buys flowers for his wife because he loves her will be happy about the gift. He’ll probably feel like a better husband, and he will be confident that his wife will return the affection that he feels for her. In contrast, the man who buys flowers for his wife to avoid her wrath probably feels a little stressed, having to tiptoe around her. He might be mad about the money that it costs, and he will expect her to be ungrateful or undeserving of the gift. Rather than bringing the couple together, sacrificing with avoidance motives has the potential to drive them further apart. Giving sacrifice willingly (with approach motives) is far more beneficial than giving grudgingly. 

Learning to Sacrifice

Learning to sacrifice is more than a to-do list. Since motivation matters, sacrifice must be delivered with an attitude of love and appreciation. It is less of an action than it is a process of becoming. So although the following suggestions may help, remember that sacrificing requires a change of heart, and not just a change of behavior: 

Sacrificial Speech:  Sometimes sacrifice means biting your tongue. When your partner or child makes a negative remark, don’t respond unkindly. Instead, select a calm and caring reply. This is called accommodation or editing.

Sacrificial Stance: Researchers recommend that rather than focusing on how our family members can change, we should shift our attention to something that we have more control over, such as how we can bless them. In the spirit of President John F Kennedy, we ask not “what can this person do for me?” but “what can I do for this person?”

Sacrificial Sight: Change your heart by changing your perspective.  Researchers suggest that we should focus on the things that we want to create in our relationships rather than things that we want to avoid. See family members’ needs and interests as important as your own, and notice their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

Sacrificial Savoir-Faire: Savoir-faire is the ability to act with grace and tact. Sometimes this requires sacrifice. Choose your battles wisely and be willing to set aside personal interests when they conflict with couple or family well-being.

Written by Jenny Stewart, Research Assistant, edited by Justin Dyer and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

References 

  1. Bahr, H. S. (2001). Families and self-sacrifice: Alternative models and meanings for family theory.Social Forces79(4), 1231-1258.
  2. Burr, W. R., Marks, L. D., Day, R. D. (2012). Sacred matters: Religion and spirituality in families. New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(4), 848-861.
  4. Fincham, F. D., Stanley, S. M., Beach, S. R H. (2007). Transformative processes in marriage: An analysis of emerging trends. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 275-292.
  5. Fowers, B. J. (2000). Beyond the myth of marital happiness: How embracing the virtues of loyalty, generosity, justice, and courage can strengthen your relationship. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Hinckley, G. B. (1971, June). Except the Lord build the houseEnsign. 
  7. Impett, E. A., Gable, S. L., & Peplau, L. (2005). Giving up and giving in: The costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology89(3), 327-344.
  8. Pargament, K., Zinnbauer, B., Scott, A., Butter, E., Zerowin, J., & Stanik, P. (1998). Red flags and religious coping: Identifying some religious warning signs among people in crisis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 54(1), 77-89.
  9. Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Sadberry, S. L., Clements, M. L., Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.
  10. Van Lange, P. 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(6), 1373-1395.
  11. Whitton, S., Stanley, S., & Markman, H. (2002).  Sacrifice in romantic relationships: An exploration of relevant research and theory.  In A. L. Vangelisti, H. T. Reis, & M. A. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Stability and change in relationships (pp. 156-182). Cambridge, UK: University Press.