Thursday, April 23, 2009

Got Love? Give Love

Healthy sacrifice is good for relationships. According to a new study out last year, it also is attractive.

Colleagues like Sarah Whitton and I have conducted some studies looking at sacrifice in romantic relationships—particularly marriage. We’ve published a couple of papers on this subject and I’ve given talks on it as well. While there have not been a lot of studies on sacrifice, there have been a number of good ones by different researchers. (click here for abstracts of related studies)

For purposes of this discussion, sacrifice simply means giving up what you want, at times, for what is best for your partner and your relationship. It also means not resenting giving up something for the good of your relationship. In fact, resentment and score keeping (“you owe me because I did this”) are associated with bad things. Of course, that does not mean being a doormat or putting yourself in danger. Done in healthy relationships in reasonable ways, sacrifice can be seen as a core element of true and committed love.

Sacrifice has been measured in many different ways by different researchers, and in all the studies I know about, it is associated with greater happiness and commitment in marriage. In an age when cultural messages surround us extolling the virtues of taking care of number one (ourselves), the findings of such studies are delightfully counter-culture.

Here’s a fun little nugget that is a new addition to the studies I’ve known about. Being a giver is attractive. It seems that women and men find altruism attractive in a partner. (Altruism is a close cousin to sacrifice.) This is especially true of women. Women dig giving men. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology showed that women place great importance on altruistic traits when searching for mate. (here’s a link to a summary of this study) Things like giving blood or volunteering to help others made men much more attractive to women.

Putting these two streams of findings together is not very hard. It’s smart for people to be attracted to others who give. Giving is a good sign in a potential partner because it is connected to things that build a strong foundation in relationships. Our take on some of the findings in our research and that of others is that sacrifice is one of the ways that partners send signals to each other about the nature of the commitment between the partners.

For those of you looking for a mate, this is one of those things that you can look for before you get too involved with someone—if it’s truly important to you. In fact, meeting someone in the context of helping others (say, while volunteering to help in a local animal shelter) is probably an especially good way to be sure that you are meeting someone who really is a giver versus someone posing as a giver. It’s not very likely that a person does that type of service just to find people to date.

If you are not much of a giver now, there is a paradox here; starting to give to others in order to look cool to potential partners is probably not going to work. That is just another form of giving to get, and that type of giving just doesn’t cut it. Worse still would be trying to draw all kinds of attention to just how great a giver you are. Can you imagine the pick up line? “Hi there. I gave blood today and I helped a frail, elderly person to cross the street. I’m going to teach someone how to read tomorrow. Want to hang out and appreciate me tonight?”

Next time, I’ll write some thoughts about how to boost genuine sacrifice in a relationship.