This week’s post is more of an Op-Ed piece than usual; not that they all aren’t, to some extent, but I think it’s a good and important practice for therapists–all clinicians, really–to admit and own it when they decide to throw themselves into the deep end of their own biases. And we have them, don’t ever think that we don’t. When we sit with clients, it’s our job to reign them in so they don’t get in the way, but when we’re writing our own blogs, well… the gloves can come off 🙂
Disclosure: I’m a writer, always have been. I did it professional in High Tech for the better part of 25 years, concurrent with building my private practice. As such, I am KEENLY aware of the power of language when I listen to the things my clients say, both the stories they tell me about their lives, and the scripts they tell me that run in their own heads. Words have both meaning and IMPACT, and often we don’t necessarily realize how much of either we have internalized over our lives as a result of upbringing inside family or cultural values, or implicit expectations shaped by our relationships as we reach and stretch into adulthood.
Recently, I have encountered on a handful of occasions the use of the word “sacrifice” in the context of people’s relationship expectations. It comes up with clients from time to time, and recently came across a dating profile in which someone wrote, “I’m hoping to find someone where in time we come to intuitively know each other’s needs and both are willing to sacrifice our own needs for the sake of our partner.” At that point, I realized I was encountering the word often enough to be developing a kind of teeth-clenching resistance to the use of the word in relationships. I did what I sometimes do in these circumstances; where I discover new/changed reactivity to something that I used to just coast serenely past, and when I don’t know what’s changed, I poll my social Tribe for feedback. It’s very unscientific, but my Tribe is a widely-spread and broadly-experienced group of people who can offer perspectives based in their own perceptions and experiences, and suddenly I have a large parcel of information in which to compare and contrast, or centre my own Stuff.
To start with, I think the gist of my growing reaction to “sacrifice” as a word bandied about in relationships, is the underlying supposition that we treat sacrifice as a realistic expectation in terms of “this is just what we do as a regular course of action”. I find this highly problematic in the purest sense of the word:
Definition of sacrifice
1: an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially: the killing of a victim on an altar
2: something offered in sacrifice
3a: destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else
b: something given up or lost the sacrifices made by parents
I don’t think the relational context has anything to do with offerings to deities in truth, but in all of these definitions, the underlying impression is that these are things that are precious to us personally, that we are (within the relational context) expected to yield up permanently. And while I am the first person to acknowledge that there are a lot of changes that come with getting into relationship, including yielding time and attention to the presence of a partner, my current struggle is to accept that any relationship ROOTED in an expectation of “sacrifice” is starting off on a very problematic footing.
I have previously written about the 3 C’s of Resolution Management, and I think maybe it’s time to revisit the lexicon established there. It seems a healthier approach than sacrifice, to look at establishing shared relationship as a collaborative process at best, and a series of negotiated compromises at worst (where “worst” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, but read the original post for a clearer distinction between the two). It’s my personal bias that relationship building should be building on the raw materials everyone brings to the table, to build something that is more than, or greater than, the sum of its component parts. But when we view relationships as being rooted in sacrifice (or arguably compromise, to some extent), then we’re deliberately starting out with the mentality that we must take away or yield up something precious to us as a sacrifice, to be in this relationship. It means on a very linguistically-technical level, a sense that we have to have less than what we had, or be less than who we are, in order to somehow be accepted into relational positions.
As a relationship therapist, you can see why this “lesser-than” mentality and approach to intimate relationships is troubling when it manifests as an out-of-the-starting-gate *expectation*.
In my informal poll of the social Tribe, I posed this set of questions:
“In relationships contexts, do you react differently to someone defining a relationships as “needing (or expecting) collaboration and compromise” versus defining a relationship as “need (or expecting) sacrifices”? Is it *healthy* (FSV of “healthy” that I’ll leave to the reader to define) to start relationships with an expectation of “sacrifice”?”
The responses resoundingly tended to be along the lines of, “Collaboration and compromise are reasonable expectations as explicitly-negotiated processes; sacrifice is okay as a once-in-a-blue moon response to special circumstances, but NOT as a default expectation”. I think there are circumstances in which sacrifice is a legitimate expectation: I’ve never yet met a parent who didn’t see the decision to raise a child as involving ALL KINDS of yes-we-gave-up-precious-things-on-a-pretty-much-permanent-basis sacrifices. Some of the respondents had ideas along the lines of sacrifice as a *temporary tool* rather than a permanent commitment to the loss of something individually-valued. And more than a few referred (directly or obliquely) to a certain cultural subtext that “sacrifice is a noble and virtuous act”, which, again, I’m not sure I buy as a default, broadstrokes stance. As a one-off act in exceptional circumstances, perhaps, but if it’s a cultural expectation that “sacrifice is just how we DO relationships”, I’m not sure I can buy into that as a foundational principle. And at least one respondent raised the concern about sacrifice being perceived as a very heavily gender-biased act in which women are expected to sacrifice more than men do. From a therapist’s perspective, I know that male clients report feeling the need to sacrifice at least as often as women do, and in many of the same contexts. So I don’t think the perceived *act* of sacrifice is gender-biased, but I strongly suspect (based on nothing more than a gut instinct at this moment) that *WHAT* we are expected or desired to sacrifice may very well have strong gender biases behind them.
At no time do I believe that there isn’t going to be a degree of necessary compromise when developing relationships. At the very least, in order to integrate someone into our lives, or integrate into theirs, with sufficient time and exposure to allow vulnerability and intimacy to have a chance to take root, we withdraw time from other pursuits in order to dedicate it to the new thing. We can choose to see that as sacrifice, or we can choose to see that as compromise/collaboration, depending on how it’s negotiated. There will only ever be 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, and we cannot “make time”, we can only rebalance priorities to allow new things entry onto the schedule. I often suspect that people who start out relationships with the adamant and unrelenting position of, “Take me as I am, I refuse to compromise”, do so because of a fear of the expectations for compromise or sacrifice. One the one hand, sacrifice is seen as virtuous and noble; on the other hand, in relational contexts, we fear losing autonomy and “disappearing” under the rise of The Relationship’s dominating presence and the Royal We-dom of couplehood.
I believe a healthy, effective balance lies somewhere in the middle. Usually these things also involve a long, hard look at WHY we use the language we use when we talk about expectations in relationships: where does our use of that language come from, and what weighty meanings do we ascribe both consciously and unconsciously, to their application? Do we use “sacrifice” when we mean “compromise”, or even “concession”? (Compromise is defined as, “an agreement or a settlement…that is reached by each side making concessions”.) It’s reasonable to wonder at what point are we splitting hairs in looking at the lexicon, but I can absolutely guarantee that some words carry more weight than others, and as my own recent reactions show me, we all react to words different based on the weight we apply to their meanings. I have less trouble with compromise than I do with sacrifice, and yet they both (be definition) involve yielding or conceding something in order to get an acceptable solution.
So when we look at tensions in relationship in the counselling room, we have to look at what the words mean to each individual participant, and strip them down to the meanings that trigger our emotional connections and reactions to those words. I *EXPECT* to negotiate compromises and collaborations in relationship, but I *RESENT* being told I’m expected to make sacrifices for the relationship, and yet the words bear striking similarity in meaning. So my reactions are apparently tied to internalized meanings that clearly differentiate both words.
Some days, being a writer really complicates the therapeutic process. But at the end, the thought exercises that come out of looking at words on a purely etymological level lets us get deeper into personal narratives and core value explorations. And that will never, in my opinion, be wasted effort if we walk away with clearer understandings of ourselves in and out of relationship.