Extended Definition Essay Sacrifice

Sacrifice: An Unexpected Answer to Family Challenges

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 popular and professional literature seems to miss the real sources of strength in marriage: the shared goals, the necessary struggles and sacrifices, the calm joy of teamwork, and the comfort in two people carrying out mundane tasks together. All of these elements forge the profound bonds that characterize strong marriage. –Blaine Fowers, Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness

Michael and Julie’s experience illustrates that sacrifice can be a positive influence in family life. 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.  Society places such a large emphasis on self-fulfillment and independence that scholars call modern marriage the “individualized” marriage (Cherlin, 2004). Although individuality isn’t necessarily bad, too much focus on self can lead us to forget about sacrificing for others, which leads to families being less effective.  

In addition, sacrifice is usually seen as a religious rather than an academic principle. Self-care and science are the songs of our day, not sacrifice! 

But things are changing, and sacrifice is gaining importance in the academic world. It came onto the scene almost by accident. In 1998, a team of researchers discovered that sacrifice has positive outcomes. People who sacrifice are happier and have a better outlook on life (Pargament, Zinnbauer, Scott, Butter, Zerowin, & Stanik, 1998).

Although it may seem strange that giving oneself away makes a person happier, both research and religion teach us that this is true. In Christian tradition, we are most familiar with the words of 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 Sacrifice 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 Hammarskjold (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001)

Sacrifice is a “willingness to forego immediate self-interest to promote the well-being of a partner or relationship” (Van Lange, Rusbult, Drigotas, Arriaga, Witcher, & Cox, 1997, p.1374). We often see this kind of behavior family relationships. For example, a new mother sacrifices sleep to feed her baby. A husband sacrifices his weekend plans with friends to take his wife on a date. Or a child sacrifices his lunch money for his younger sister when she forgets hers. Sacrifice is so common in family life that we sometimes fail to notice it.

Sacrifice can be active (doing something for someone you love) or passive (not doing something in order to please someone you love). Scholars call sacrifice a “transformation of motivation” because it changes how we relate to others. We replace self-interested desires with concern for the people we are with (Impett, Gable, & Peplau, 2005). Rather than leaving us empty, sacrifice actually makes us full.

Research shows that greater sacrifice leads to happier, longer-lasting relationships (Van Lange et al, 1997; Stanley, Whitton, Sadberry, Clements, & Markman, 2006). Scholars include it with other “transformative processes” like forgiveness, commitment, and sanctification (Fincham, Stanley, & Beach, 2007). 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” (Van Lange et al, p.1376). However it works, it is obvious that it does work!

A Responsibility and a Reward

Family relationships provide countless opportunities to sacrifice. Parenting, in particular, requires more sacrifice than most relationships. 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

Husbands and wives have important responsibilities to each other and to their children. Fortunately, sacrifice is easier when spouses are unified.  “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” (Whitton et al., 2002, p.174). Mature individuals realize that caring for one’s spouse is actually to one’s own benefit because doing so fulfills a deep human need to belong and to nurture. Sacrifice thus becomes a blessing rather than a burden.

Children benefit from the sacrificial examples of their parents. As recipients of their parents’ sacrifices, they learn how to sacrifice in return. In this way, sacrifice makes it more likely for family members to reciprocate good behaviors.  The result is a more generous, hospitable home atmosphere (Whitton et al., 2002).

Motive Matters

To care about someone . . . means devoting them to the person and taking joy in doing so; in the end, one feels richer for one’s efforts, not poorer.  –Tzvetan Todorov (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001).

Not all sacrifice is created equally. Researchers often categorize sacrificial behaviors as having one of two motives (Impett et al., 2005):

·         Approach motives seek to obtain positive outcomes. We call them “approach motives” or “appetitive motives” because the purpose of sacrifice is to gain a reward. For example, a man could buy flowers for his wife because he loves her and wants her to be happy. He is using approach motives because he is seeking the reward of his wife’s happiness and well-being.

·         Avoidance motives seek to avoid negative outcomes. Avoidance motives (or “aversive motives”) are so-named because the goal is to avoid some sort of punishment. For example, the same man could buy flowers for his wife for Valentine’s Day because he knows that she will be mad if he doesn’t. He exemplifies avoidance motives because he is seeking to avoid her anger.

Research shows that approach motives are better than avoidance motives (Impett et al., 2005). 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.

Emily Impett and her colleagues did a study to show the importance of sacrificing for the right reasons. They asked 161 college students to keep a daily journal. For two weeks, students wrote about their romantic relationships and their sacrificial behaviors, including whether or not they were sacrificing for avoidance or approach reasons. The results were impressive: 

“On days when participants sacrificed for avoidance motives, they experienced more negative emotions, lower satisfaction with life, less positive relationship well-being, and more relationship conflict…Further, the more often participants sacrificed for avoidance motives over the course of the 2-week study, the less satisfied they were and the more likely they were to have broken up 1 month later…” (2005, p. 340).

Impett’s findings echo a common theme in the Bible: “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Given grudgingly, sacrifice doesn’t benefit the giver or the receiver nearly as much as when it is given willingly (Van Lange et al., 1997).  Approach motives and avoidance motives boil down to the principle of sincerity. Approach motives tend to be sincere, while avoidance motives tend to be insincere. Sincere, heartfelt sacrifice benefits both the giver and the receiver. Author Philip Hallie helped explain why sincerity is prerequisite to sacrifice:

[There is a fundamental distinction] between giving things and giving oneself. When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded . . . both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become . . . féconde (fertile, fruitful). What you give creates new, vigorous life” (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001, p. 1241).

Rather than feeling degraded or used when they sacrifice, people who sacrifice with approach motives (sincerely trying to bless someone else) actually feel like beneficiaries. They profit from the possibility of reciprocation, from feeling needed and useful, and from growing to know what is needed and how to meet those needs (Bahr & Bahr, 2001).

To Make Sacred

Sacrifice has found acceptance in academics, but it is also an important religious principle. The roots of the word sacrifice literally mean “to make sacred” (Burr et al., 2012, p.83). A team of Brigham Young University scholars explored the link between sacrifice and sacredness. They found that “perceiving parts of family life to be sacred gives them a unique, unusually powerful, and salient influence in families… [Thus] the greater the sacredness of sacrificing, the more unique, powerful, and salient the effects of the sacrificing are on other family processes and valued family outcomes” (2012, p. 82).

So, for people who believe that sacrifice is a sacred principle (of special, even transcendent, significance), sacrifice in family life may be more meaningful. For example, the man who believes that fatherhood is a divine duty will probably be more willing to sacrifice work hours for time with his children than the man who thinks little of his fathering efforts. When sacrifices made in the home are considered sacred, we expect individuals and families to sacrifice more often and with purer motives, leading to better family outcomes. We thus recommend that couples and families view sacrifice from a sacred lens, and see family life as directly benefited by religious beliefs.  

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 (Whitton et al., 2002).

·         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 (Stanley et al., 2006, p. 301). 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 (Impett et al., 2005). See family members’ needs and interests as important as your own (Bahr & Bahr, 2001), 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 (Van Lange et al., 1997).

Word of Warning

Sacrifice is wonderful for families, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Research says that sacrifice is most helpful when it is voluntary, when it is given in moderation, when it is reciprocated (given in return), and when it is accompanied by commitment (Stanley et al., 2006). Sacrifice could easily become harmful if given in the wrong ways. Consider the following circumstances and note how sacrifice could be unhealthy:

·         Allie and Mark have been married for three months. They love each other, but Mark feels like Allie asks too much of him. She gives him a “honey-do” list every Saturday, and she is constantly nagging him to do things her way. He is happy to do whatever it takes to make theirs a happy marriage, but sometimes he wishes that he could do things for her without being pushed into it.

Mark’s sacrifices would better if he didn’t feel pushed to sacrifice. Remember, the most beneficial sacrifice is given willingly, with approach motivations rather than with avoidance motivations. Allie could help the situation by being less demanding, more grateful, and by doing a good turn for Mark on a more frequent occasion.

·         Although Melissa is smitten with her boyfriend, her family is not so fond of him. They affectionately call him “Dan the Dud.” Mel has been dating him for nearly 18 months now, and she does everything she can to convince Dan to marry her. She regularly sacrifices social events and school demands to spend time with him, but he doesn’t seem to reciprocate. In reality, she knows that he really is a dud. She is convinced that things would be better if they were married.

Melissa is right in one respect—sacrifice and commitment do go hand-in-hand, though it is foolish to believe that Dan’s behavior will change after they get married. Research shows that for men especially, long-term commitment is related to greater willingness to sacrifice (Stanley et al., 2006). Sacrifice is always most advantageous when it is reciprocated. Only then can sacrifice contribute to a relationship climate of mutual support and generosity.

·         Karen and Tanner have three children. Karen has a giving heart, and she rarely considers her own needs. She spends so much time serving her family that she sometimes finds herself crashing, feeling exhausted and burned out. Tanner tries to convince her to take a break to rejuvenate, but she feels guilty about taking care of her own needs.

The answer to Karen’s problem is moderation! Moms are especially susceptible to burn-out. The problem isn’t sacrifice, but how much sacrifice. We all have finite capacities, and we can only give from what we have—in time, energy, or materials. Even mothers have limits. When Karen replenishes herself, she will be more effective in sacrificing and serving others. 


Church leader Gordon B. Hinckley wisely defined love in sacrificial terms: “True love is not so much a matter of romance as it is a matter of anxious concern for the well-being of one’s companion” (1971). Current research and personal experience support Hinckley’s words.  When it comes to family relationships, sacrifice is the vital key to individual happiness and family unity.  Kenneth Boulding said it well: “[W]ithout the kind of commitment or identity which emerges from sacrifice, it may well be that no communities, not even the family, would really stay together” (quoted in Bahr & Bahr, 2001).

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


Bahr, H. S., & Bahr, K. S. (2001). Families and self-sacrifice: Alternative models and meanings for family theory. Social Forces79(4), 1231-1258.

Burr, W. R., Marks, L. D., Day, R. D. (2012). Sacred matters: Religion and spirituality in families.New York, NY: Routledge.

Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(4), 848-861.

Fincham, F. D., Stanley, S. M., Beach, S. R H. (2007). Transformative processes in marriage: An analysis of emerging trends. Journal of Marriage and Family69, 275-292.

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.

Hinckley, G. B. (1971, June). Except the Lord build the house. Ensign. 

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 Psychology, 89(3), 327-344.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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