Couples Play “The Sacrifice Game” At Their Peril

One of the primary subjects that come up when couples are in conflict is simply how to make—or keep—a marriage happy for both parties. Probably the best way to ensure this is for both parties to remind themselves that they are ‘on the same team.’ This means that they both share the same goals, the same desired outcome, and the same values.

Of course, you can’t really convince yourself of this unless you chose the right partner for the right reasons. If you want happiness, and your spouse wants happiness, then there need be no conflict. If a conflict begins you can stop by saying to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. We’re not enemies. Back up here. Listen and assert; but don’t fight.’

When you’re in a romantic relationship, your real personality tends to come out. For example, are you the kind of person who seeks to understand reality? Or are you the kind of person who cares more about being right and winning? If you’re the latter, then your marital relationship will surely dissolve into an adversarial series of games and ‘one upsmanship.’

Perhaps on some level this is what you want, but if you don’t like the inevitable outcome, then your basic approach must be reconsidered.

The only real ‘win’ is personal happiness for each member of the relationship. Some people love their spouses so much that they’re happy to go their way when something is more important to the spouse. If winning is your primary concern, you won’t let your spouse have his or her way. If mutual happiness is your primary goal, then you’re happy to give your spouse everything he or she may desire, so long as it’s possible, realistic and does not involve some kind of unacceptable sacrifice on your part.

Of course, sacrifice need not be a major issue either, at least not when both partners aim for mutual happiness. ‘Mutual happiness’ means an underlying attitude in each partner as
follows: ‘I want to be happy, and I want my spouse to be happy.’ This makes compromise easier, because if you see something is really important to your spouse, and not nearly as important to you, then you’re more than happy to ‘give in.’ At the same time, you possess a strong sense of self, and if something is really important to you, you’ll convey this to your spouse. For example: ‘Do you remember how important it was to you to take our vacation in Hawaii last year? I was happy to do that, because it made you happy—and I ended up liking it, myself. Well, that’s how I feel about having our bathroom remodeled. It’s really important to me for a lot of different reasons.’

There’s a world of difference between this attitude and the attitude couples in conflict often express: ‘I went on that trip to Hawaii for you; now you need to do this for me!’ The response to this will inevitably, and reasonably, go something like this: ‘Well, first of all, you shouldn’t have made that sacrifice. And if you did make that sacrifice, that gives you no right to throw it back in my face now. You should have made your intentions clear by saying, ‘I don’t want to go to Hawaii. I think it’s an unpleasant waste of money. But I’m going for your sake, and yours alone. It’s a sacrifice. And you will owe me.’ That would have given me the opportunity to conclude, ‘I want no part of this’ and come up with a different vacation plan. Instead, you pretended to want to go to Hawaii and now you throw it back at me now as a way of getting what you want.’

The sacrifice game is dishonest and it breeds an adversarial mentality in both partners. Why is it dishonest? Because it’s rarely done in the open. It’s done quietly, resentfully, in secret—and then it’s brought back to the surface later on. It’s as if the person who made the sacrifice is making a trade with you, but won’t openly admit it. In an honest and open trade, it would go like this: ‘OK. I really don’t like the idea of taking our vacation in Hawaii. I don’t know that it’s worth it. But I know it’s important to you, and I’ll resolve to have a good time once I’m there. I might be surprised. But in exchange, I want us to get the bathroom remodeled next year. I realize you might not be as enthused about that expenditure as I am, but it’s kind of the same thing. How’s that?’

We’re taught, on the general and philosophical level, that sacrifice is noble and that bringing the notion of ‘trade’ into personal relationships—especially romantic or marital ones—is mercenary and cold. Yet, in actual practice, the exact opposite is true. Marriages that fail are almost always suffering from a lack of mutual, open exchange and an overabundance of secretive, resentful self sacrifice. If you’re just starting out in a marriage or love relationship, and you want it to last, remember that love is an exchange. On the broadest level, it’s a trade between the two people involved.

Each partner gets something out of it—primarily, the fact that the other person is who he or she is. On the more specific, concrete and day-today level, exchanges and trades must be made in the spirit of what I described above. I suppose this is what people mean when they claim ‘compromise’ is so crucial to the survival of a marriage. I don’t think compromise is the primary issue. The primary issue is mutuality and a loving, healthy sense of trade. Though compromise is a useful tool for building mutuality and trade, it need not be an end in itself.