We throw the words compromise and sacrifice around quite a bit in relationships. But what exactly do they mean? And don’t they mean the same thing? 

Well, the short answer is, not exactly. It’s complicated, kind of like relationships are sometimes. Read on to see what I mean.

Both sacrifice and compromise require someone to lose or give something up, but in two very different ways. 

Compromise involves people meeting in the middle to solve a problem. Each person gives in a little… or a lot. Here’s a simple example: one person wants to meet for coffee at 11:00, while the other prefers 11:30. They meet in the middle and decide on 11:15. Each person gave up 15 minutes; problem solved.

Sacrifice is different, though. It requires one person to meet another where they are. They give up something to accommodate the other person regardless of whether they respond or give back. Another simple example: one person can only meet at 11:00 for coffee. Rather than reschedule, the other person gives up a prior engagement to meet with this person. 

Compromise is a team effort toward a common goal, resolving conflict or disagreement. It’s mutual by its very nature. Everyone involved must give up something for it to be called compromise. A compromise works out differences.  

A sacrifice is a solo act done to strengthen the bond between two people. One person gives something up for the relationship; the other person doesn’t necessarily have to, although relationships generally thrive when sacrifice is mutual. Sacrifice seals commitment. 

The nature of sacrifice and compromise gets hairier when you consider different levels and depths of relationships. 

Here’s what I mean. 

Compromising on a coffee time with a co-worker is one thing. Settling with your spouse on how to raise your kids, save money, or where you’ll spend the holidays is a totally different ballgame. Deeper relationships call for deeper considerations.

Perhaps not so much with sacrifice. Giving up a career, living in a particular city, or spending a lot of time with other people is considered good in some relationships, but downright crazy in others.  

**Compromise happens in all healthy relationships to some degree. Sacrifice is probably more appropriate for long-term, committed relationships. And problems can occur when we get those two concepts mixed up.**

As a matter of fact, it’s possible to sacrifice for the wrong reason. An interesting piece of research found that when one romantic partner gave something up for the good of the relationship, both partners had higher than average relationship satisfaction

On the flipside, both partners felt less satisfied in their relationship when a partner gave something up to avoid guilt or hurt feelings. 

Did you catch that? The same behavior—sacrificing for one’s partner—had opposite effects depending on the motive behind it. Your reason for sacrifice makes a difference. 

What can we take away from these ideas? 

  • Disagreements happen. Compromise can help solve problems and keep relationships healthy. 
  • Sacrifice isn’t always the best option, like maybe in a new dating relationship. It can even be harmful. But when it is appropriate (think marriage), both people benefit from it. 
  • Compromise costs, but it’s typically refundable. If a compromise doesn’t work, you can usually step back and try something else.
  • Sacrifice is also costly, but it usually has a no-return policy. It’s risky. And it shouldn’t be done recklessly. 
  • Carefully weigh your relationship’s depth and outlook (and the issue you need to solve) before sacrificing or compromising. 

Some say compromise is the foundation of a relationship. Others say throw compromise out the window and selflessly sacrifice. 

I say there’s a time and a place for each: compromise freely and sacrifice wisely

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***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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