By Lysanne SizooListen
“After everything I’ve done for you…..” cries the martyr who feels unseen and unheralded in his or her great sacrifice. But are they right? Are there times when we make unilateral decisions about offering ourselves for others when the offer is neither asked for nor appreciated?
Sacrifice is often seen as the highest good, driven by love for the other or the others around us, be they our most intimate partners, our friends, children, or parents. The partner of an ambitious athlete will inevitably have to make a sacrifice for the sake of his or her partner’s goals. And it may feel entirely appropriate, until it goes sour. Parents say they will do ‘anything’ for their children, and yet ‘martyr-mother’ and ‘martyr-father’ syndromes loom large in the therapy room.
If sacrifice is the highest good, then its more mundane and pragmatic sibling is compromise. And compromise is often the only way we can make relationships work, from our intimate relationships to entire democracies. So how do we know when we’ve crossed the line from Compromise into Sacrifice?
The difference between sacrifice and compromise
In my experience sacrifice is often based on an individual’s internal decision. “Out of love for this person, this family, or this tribe, I will do this.” When you love an individual or a group you want to find ways of making them happy, or safe, or fulfilled. We think we can do that by pre-empting and meeting their needs. But most of us have no clue about our own needs, let alone those of others. And so we set about meeting those unasked for needs and are surprised when our offerings remain unseen and unappreciated. We want recognition. We’re only human. But the cry of the martyr rarely elicits gratitude. Instead, guilt, annoyance, frustration and cries of ‘I never asked you to’ are far more likely.
For example; Parenting is an interesting case study in the natural shift from sacrifice to compromise. We accept that we will be getting up three times a night to see to the needs of a lonely, hungry or wet infant, ‘sacrificing’ our own wellbeing for the sake of the infant. But if all goes well, over the coming eighteen years or so, the levels of self-sacrifice reduce and are replaced by a more equal balance of needs. Compromise instead of sacrifice. That way we raise strong and healthy human beings who know how to express their own needs while also being open to meeting the needs of others. Yet we all know parents who veer to the selfish end of the spectrum from day one, or who are still firmly stuck at the selfless end by the time their youngsters are ready to leave the nest.
And so if sacrifice is unilateral, involving an internal decision, compromise is more of a bilateral action. Compromise says, ‘I need this, and you need that.’ But for compromise to work we need to know everything about our own needs and desires and forget about those of the other. Forget? Surely not? Yes, forget! Because in a healthy balanced relationship, be it between two people, within a family, or within a nation, both parties must take responsibility for expressing not only ‘what’ they want, but also ‘how’ they want it, and even ‘when’ they want it. And at the same time they remain aware that they can seldom have it ‘all their own way’. Only when two parties are evenly matched in this manner can true compromises be achieved. After all, a lot of our guessing about what other people need can become very atronising. So while compromise sounds like achieving the lowest common goal – think the reputation of coalition governments –it is possible to have relationships where compromise is all about achieving a win-win situation. Compromise, when it comes from a place of love and inner strength, and not having to prove yourself through the love of the other person, is about tenderness and equality, about finding the best of both words, focussing on what is possible, rather than ranting and raving about what is not (yet) possible.
Keeping the lines of communication clean
So whether we are part of a couple, or a parent, or the lucky recipient of friendship from another being, we need to be brave and explore our own motives for any kind of ‘giving’ that we’ve been doing. Firstly we must ask ourselves if our demonstration of love is actually asked for or imagined. Perhaps, even a trifle patronising. Then we need to get out of that petty place of comparing our level of ‘giving’ in a relationship to that of the other. At our narrowest we may argue about who did more for whom. So many times something that I’ve presented as ‘my great sacrifice’ in an argument, turns out upon further analysis and reflection to have been a gift that was generously and lovingly given. And really, if fifteen, twenty, forty years down the line, neither party feels they’ve offered anything for the other then I wonder what’s been going on. And this goes as much for individuals as the various national and ethnic groups that make up our global family.
That’s what being in a relationship is all about: healthy generosity and a balance between my needs and your needs. But since we also need to recognise in one another that we are fallible human beings it would be nice of from time to time if our gifts to one another could get some recognition. So we need to remember to be compassionate and give other people recognition for their intentions while at the same time stating clearly what your true expectations are in the ‘gift’ you are being offered and that it does not feel correct for you.
Good clean communications are about stating your needs, hearing the needs of the other clearly and being honest about the extent to which you are able and willing to meet them. Compromise, driven by mutual generosity will feel more liberating and life enhancing than any self-imposed sacrificial demand ever could.