It’s the Motive That Counts: Perceived Sacrifice Motives and Gratitude in Romantic Relationships

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Gratitude is robustly linked to many positive outcomes for individuals and relationships (e.g., greater life and relationship satisfaction). However, little is known about how romantic partners come to feel grateful for each other’s pro-relational acts, such as when a partner makes a sacrifice. The present research examines how perceptions of partner sacrifice motives evoke gratitude. We distinguish between partner, relationship, and self-focused motives, and how they are guided by approach or avoidance orientations. We expected that perceiving a partner to sacrifice for partner-focused approach motives (i.e., to promote the partner’s well-being) should evoke gratitude, as this type of motive may signal a genuine departure from self-interest. Moreover, we expected these motives to provoke greater perceptions of partner responsiveness, which should partially explain why they elicit gratitude. In contrast, perceiving a partner to sacrifice for relationship-focused motives (e.g., to promote the well-being of the relationship), or self-focused motives (e.g., to feel good about oneself), should not evoke gratitude—irrespective of an approach or avoidance orientation—as these motives may, to some extent, be perceived as tainted by self-interest. Two studies of romantic couples (N = 413), using diary methods (Studies 1 and 2) and having couples converse about a major sacrifice in the laboratory (Study 2), consistently showed that perceived partner-focused approach motives promote gratitude and that this association is partly mediated by perceived partner responsiveness. In contrast, relationship and self-focused motives (approach and avoidance oriented) were not associated with gratitude. Implications regarding perceiving and displaying sacrifice motives are discussed.

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