Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Drives Sacrificing for A Partner? And Does Oxytocin Play a Role?

There is a growing body of research on the role of sacrifice in romantic relationships and marriage. It’s really interesting stuff, too—at least for a relationship geek. I’m talking (mostly) about healthy giving from one partner to another, not martyrdom or responding to one’s inner doormat. (If you keep getting rug burns from giving in your relationships, you might not be giving in healthy ways. Hey, maybe that’s another not so hot form of sliding.)

When defined in healthy ways, there are a number of studies that show that sacrifice for one’s partner and relationship is associated with all sorts of good things in a relationship—especially in marriage. But I don’t want to focus on marriage in this post. I want to focus on how relationships develop early on.

Many studies show the positive effects of sacrifice. If you want to look some up, here you go. The article by van Lange is particularly wonderful. All the articles noted here also discuss or study the downside of sacrificing (especially Impett et al.). So, for the really geeky, here are some fine citations for you (otherwise, move on):

Impett, E. A., Gable, K. P., & Peplau, L. A. (2005). Giving up and giving in: The costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 327-344.

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.

Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.

In our lab, we’ve published two studies on sacrifice in intimate relationships (which flowed out of the steady focus we have on many issues related to commitment in our lab):

Whitton, S.W., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2007). If I help my partner, will it hurt me? Perceptions of sacrifice in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 64-92.

Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.

We predicted that long-term commitment to the future would be associated with willingness to sacrifice, since one should be more inclined to sacrifice for their relationship if they see a future for it. Sacrifices can be seen as a type of investment, which is something people tend to do more of when they see a future. If one’s view is all short-term, you won’t see a lot of investment in anything except “me.” We and other scholars think sacrifices perform a really crucial role in addition to the obvious benefit of generating positive behavior. It’s this. Sacrifices demonstrate commitment. They send signals that reaffirm commitment between partners. This simple theory is why you can also see many groups—gangs for example—requiring some type of overt sacrifice by a newbie to become a member. The sacrifice, like knocking over a 7-11 or something a lot worse, demonstrates seriousness about commitment in a way that just saying “I’m with you on this” can’t. Note, if you are in a new relationship that is growing toward something, and your partner desires you to engage in criminal acts to demonstrate your commitment, that’s not too good a sign. Just take note of that.

Back to our studies. We expected that long-term commitment (wanting a future together) would be strongly related to attitudes about sacrifice. We expected this to be true regardless of the sex of the respondent. What we found, though, is a substantial difference between men and women in how things work. For one of those two groups, the association between sacrifice and long-term commitment was far stronger than for the other.

Which do you think it was? Was commitment to the future more crucial for understanding sacrifice for men or for women? What do you think and why? Mull that over and in the next post I’ll tell you what I suspect. And then I’ll come back to some points (a theory) about oxytocin.