Love requires sacrifice—within reason

Being able to give without calculation not only helps others—it leads to personal transformation.
Our Faith

“You know, it’s not meant to be a reciprocal relationship,” I told the client who was sitting across from me in my psychotherapy office. He’d been lamenting the fact that after all he has done for his children—the sacrifices made, the money spent, the time given (and all of this so much more than his parents had bestowed on him!)—his kids aren’t doing a whole lot to return the effort. The missed curfews, the refused family movie nights, the reticence to share their thoughts and feelings, the forgetfulness around feeding the dog and taking out the trash. Sometimes it even seems as if his teens are intentionally making his life more difficult. 

I felt my client’s pain. In a perfect world, children—be they toddlers, teens, or young adults—would show appreciation and love for their parents, help out around the house, and demonstrate true concern for the interests and well-being of the people who raised them. I consider teaching my children to be contributing members of the family and community to be one of my primary tasks on the parenting front. 

Parents are not bottomless pits of physical and emotional resources, and there ought to be some mutual love and care within the parent-child relationship, especially once those children reach some level of adulthood. But reciprocal? I don’t think that’s a defining characteristic of the dynamic between parents and their pre-adult offspring. For at least a very large chunk of time—years, decades even—parents ought to give more to their kids than they expect in return. 

My opinion isn’t exactly controversial, but my client seemed genuinely taken aback when I posited he idea that he is not owed his teenagers’ cooperation and affection, despite having spent the past decade and a half working hard, worrying, and giving up his own desires to meet their needs. And not only is he not owed love; for at least a few more years, he is legally required to keep providing for his teenagers materially. I’d argue that he’s also ethically required to keep providing for them emotionally, even if they are total jerks to him. 


Reciprocal, the parent-child relationship is not. Phrased differently, the role of parenthood demands sacrifice. 

To be clear, it’s not that boundaries shouldn’t be set, or that mutuality in relationships isn’t important. Our individual well-being isn’t the end-all, be-all in every circumstance. Sometimes we must relinquish our wants in favor of others’ needs. Sometimes we must suffer a little for the good of our family members, friends, and neighbors. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices.

Of course, there’s an ugly history of certain groups of people being systematically asked to make sacrifices for the benefit of individuals from other groups. It’s not OK that for centuries marginalized people were forced into sacrifice by people in power. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for me to relinquish some of my own comfort for the good of my spouse, children, parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends. We can decry the subjugation of individuals and groups, while also acknowledging that there is a time and place for putting the wants and needs of others above our own. For lack of better words, there are bad kinds of sacrifices, and there are good kinds of sacrifices. 

When I think of “the good kind” of sacrifice, here’s what comes to mind: My dad has helped pack, drive, and unload numerous U-Hauls in all kinds of weather to save his adult children moving expenses. My husband covers about 90 percent of our small children’s middle-of-the-night wake-ups and never complains about it. My brother used two of his 10 annual vacation days to travel to my baby’s baptism. My mom regularly makes the three-hour round-trip drive to the nearest airport to pick up friends and family members.


Not to state the obvious, but none of these sacrifices—even if they are the “good” kind—are fun for the person making them. Sure, my parents insist they are happy to help with airport runs and do-it-yourself moves and my husband says the lack of sleep doesn’t faze him. These people are immensely gracious, and I do believe they all share the ability to find delight in situations that are not intrinsically joyful (such as moving and middle-of-the-night child care). But there is just no believable way they would rather be carrying a cumbersome dresser down two narrow flights of stairs, making a tedious drive, or soothing a crying child at 3 a.m. than, say, relaxing on the couch or getting a full night’s sleep. No, these people were making sacrifices. And making sacrifices, which is unpleasant at the very least, is made even harder when the dominant cultural message says, Take care of yourself first, making self-sacrifice seem unnecessary at best and pathological at worst.

I’m glad our faith does a better job of extolling the necessity and merits of sacrifice, of giving of oneself in small and large ways, than does the culture at large. I think of Jesus commissioning the 12 disciples, instructing them to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand, to cure the sick, and to drive out demons. When he tells them, “You received without payment; give without payment” (Matt. 10:8), he’s not only reminding them that they should make sacrifices, but he’s also telling them why: because they have been given so much.  

But we don’t just give because we have received; our faith encourages us to make sacrifices, to put others before ourselves, because it is good for our souls. In the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “It is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  

When I say, “good for our souls,” I don’t mean in a metaphysical, afterworld kind of way. What I am saying is that being able to give without calculation not only makes the lives of others easier and softer and more bearable; it also leads to personal transformation as it frees us from keeping score, opens us to the satisfaction of doing a good thing, and helps us build the muscles of generosity and compassion. 


Sacrifice is an essential characteristic in the enterprise of family life, just as it’s necessary in the personal pursuit of compassion, openness to the movement of the Spirit, and union with our neighbors and our God. And so, even as I may prefer in the moment to sleep through the night, avoid the labor, and relax on my porch swing, I’m going to keep praying, in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Teach me, O Lord, to give and not count the cost.” 

This article also appears in the April 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 4, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: iStock/LumiNola


About the author

Teresa Coda

Teresa Coda works in parish faith formation. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young daughters.

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