I have sacrificed a lot for my relationship. If I hadn’t married an American, I would either be a global citizen living abroad or I’d be in my home country, immersed in my culture and speaking my language. I definitely wouldn’t be living in an American suburb.
Culture-related sacrifice can be inevitable in international relationships — after all, if you live in different countries, one or both of you has to move so you can be together. Leaving my country is a decision I made willingly, and even though it was hard, it was the right choice.
This taught me that it’s crucial to learn about healthy and unhealthy sacrifice in relationship.
When is it appropriate to sacrifice in relationships?
While the word “sacrifice” brings up negative connotations in the (post-)modern world we live in, things are more complex.
Here’s how Dr. Carol S. Pearson writes about the Martyr archetype — one of the six main archetypes we express in life — in her amazing work The Hero Within:
“Sacrifice and martyrdom have received much bad press lately,…, yet there is hardly a soul who does not believe in it in some form. At its base is a recognition that ‘I am not the only person in the world.’ Sometimes I choose to do something not so much because I want to, but because it will be good for someone else or I believe it to be the right thing. Some sacrifice is necessary in order to interact lovingly with other people.”
In other words, giving something up for something else isn’t necessarily bad. Sometimes it’s a very good, a necessary thing.
The word “sacrifice” literally means “to make sacred” and to have the life we want, we need to sacrifice many things. If you want to have professional success, you have to give up time and energy. If you want to be in a relationship, you have to give up the freedom of life as a single. If you want to be fit, you have to forgo unhealthy food.
While conscious sacrifice can help you have the life you want, the same isn’t true for unconscious, automatic sacrifice. When a person gives up things unconsciously, they can’t reflect on whether this actually feels authentic for them. They don’t actually make a choice, they just run with the program. We could call this “self-sacrifice.”
Culturally, women are often programmed to put the needs of others before their own — to sacrifice themselves for family and relationships. Men, on the other hand, have historically been conditioned to sacrifice themselves for their country by dying in wars.
But regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum, I know many people who sacrifice themselves in relationships. For instance, some of my coaching clients are deeply caring people who bend over backward for others and then collapse exhausted because they don’t receive enough support themselves.
In many cases, the more emphatic someone is, the more they struggle with this.
How to stop giving up too much of yourself in relationship
If you have a tendency to give up too much of yourself in relationships, know that it’s not your fault and that this programming can change. The following steps can help you with that:
1. Develop healthy self-care
While there are times when it’s entirely appropriate to put the needs of someone else first (such as with a newborn baby), it would be draining to live our entire lives that way. As capable adults, we must take care of our own needs.
To that end, it helps to develop a strong sense of self as well as love and compassion for yourself. When you have those in place, it’s easy to see that you have the right to take care of yourself. Your needs matter, too.
As American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it:
“Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.”
2. Reflect on how self-sacrifice can be selfish
Many people think they need to sacrifice themselves for others. However, as the late author Marty Rubin pointed out,
We don’t often talk about this aspect but that doesn’t make it less true. If someone gives up their life for someone else in a movie, they are seen as a hero. And while there’s something incredibly inspirational about people who are willing to do this, it’s also important to keep in mind that their decision has an impact on other people, most notably their grief-stricken family and friends.
While self-sacrifice might be the right choice if you’re a super-hero facing a life-or-death situation, it’s not a helpful tactic in everyday life where it can breed resentment.
There are many ways in which people end up paying for the unhealthy sacrifice of someone stuck in a martyr role. For instance, let’s assume a man is so sick he could use support. However, when people around him offer to help him, he turns them down. Maybe the next time his family members or friends need help, they’ll feel too reluctant to ask. Or they might find it too exhausting to be in a relationship with a person who can’t take good care of himself.
It’s helpful to notice that unhealthy sacrifice generally comes at a cost to everyone — and to stop doing it.
3. Recognize that receiving can be good for people around you
Many people who express the martyr archetype do not want to be “takers.” In the fictional example I mentioned, the sick man didn’t want to take the time and attention of his family or friends. Even though he would have preferred to have someone around to care for him, he basically pushed away people who were open to helping him.
While it’s great to be attentive to the needs of others, it’s not helpful to assume that those around us can’t make their own choices. In the example above, his family and friends might actually have preferred to do things to help him. Either way, the sick man didn’t need to make the decision for them.
For most people, giving something and being there for someone in need can feel really good. It’s why so many persons choose to volunteer. By not being open to receiving from others, we can deprive others of the joy of giving.
In my life, I make a conscious effort to let people support me if they like to. This can include actually receiving compliments (instead of brushing them aside) and saying “yes” if someone offers me something I want.
4. Trust others to be the adults they are
I suspect that discomfort around the word “no” is a huge reason why many people find it challenging to take care of their own needs and trust other people to be the adults they are.
Because many people find it hard to say “no” to other people’s demands, they assume everyone will feel the same way and have a hard time declining a request. In an effort to not impose on others, they then don’t ask for anything, even when they need help.
By setting stronger boundaries and using the word “no” more often, they can change this belief system and start trusting other people to set their own boundaries. That’s why it’s so crucial to become more comfortable with saying no.
For me, it was huge to realize that I can generally trust others to make their own decision. If someone is allowed to vote on the future of their country or steer a vehicle through heavy traffic, shouldn’t we also trust them to make the right decisions for themselves (or make the wrong decisions and hopefully learn from the consequences)?
By implementing these four approaches, people can get clearer about their own needs and stop sacrificing themselves. This leads to more authentic and healthy relationships— and that is ultimately better for everyone.
If you only get along with someone when you’re being a martyr, it’s not a healthy relationship. In my case, I realized there’s a difference between sacrificing things (such as living in my own culture)… and sacrificing myself.
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