Do generous people have happier marriages? Or are happily married people more generous? Does it matter which comes first? Research proves satisfaction in marriage and generosity are strongly correlated, and they may be exactly what we need right now.
Research shows that, over the course of the pandemic, stress on marriages is up, and fewer people are getting married. But, surprisingly, divorce is down. And – even more notable in recent research, a majority of American couples report that the pandemic has deepened their commitment to their spouses and made them appreciate them more.
What behaviors in strong marriages could be sustaining these appreciative and resilient couples? Among them is generosity. In times when our way of living has had to change, and the unexpected and unknown may outweigh what we’ve always assumed we could count on, a little generous behavior can go a long way.
We’ve talked about the benefits of generosity on physical, mental, and relational health before, but let’s look at some significant research on generous marriages and how a few small actions can add up to a strong sense of satisfaction for married couples.
Almost everyone has seen examples of marriages like this. But, unless you’re looking, you might not recognize this as generosity. A couple is sitting at a restaurant together. When the waiter asks to take the husband’s order, he invites his wife to go first. When the waiter is gone, she reaches for his hand under the table and smiles. When it’s time to go, he holds out her coat for her to put on. It may seem like nothing, but these gestures signify that generosity is happening in other places, too.
He blocks time on his calendar for the two of them to spend together. She makes him coffee in the morning while he catches up on emails in his home office, and once or twice a week, he cooks dinner and puts the kids to bed so she can relax or get her own work done. When problems arise, they give each other the benefit of the doubt, and they forgive small things easily.
On the weekends, they do chores together with the kids, and once a quarter, they take time away from home to plan for their family, their budget … even their giving.
The virtuous cycle
The smaller of these actions and affections are what researchers call “relationship-maintenance behaviors,” things that work to keep relationships going, to build a marriage up. They may begin as entirely altruistic on the part of one spouse, but they can create a sort of “virtuous cycle,” according to W. Bradford Wilcox, of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project who co-led the Survey of Marital Generosity. The survey of married couples – from a national sample, ranging in age from 18- to 45-years-old – was the first study of its kind ever conducted.
It’s the smaller actions that create the environment – the scaffolding that upholds other generous behaviors, like forgiveness.
Researchers from the National Marriage Project studied the role of generosity by surveying 2,870 married couples. They defined marital generosity as, “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly.”
Marital generosity: “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly.”
Their finding: Couples with the highest levels of generosity in their marriages also scored highest for happiness, especially when kids are involved. This comes as no surprise. Nor does it come as a surprise that the children in these families grow up to be happier and more generous themselves.
Examining various aspects of family, social life, and relationships, they asked questions about how often participants expressed affection and how willingly they forgave. And looking at a range of factors, from religious faith to sharing household chores, researchers found that both spouses benefit when generosity is practiced.
And generous spouses don’t practice these things once in a while. They are their standard way of behaving and even seem to have become their habits.
How can you become a more generous spouse?
Here are a few questions and ideas that might help you to find your way to a more generous marriage:
- Are you ready to act generously toward your spouse, even if it’s not reciprocated?
- What would it look like if you went “above and beyond” as a spouse?
- What are the smallest gestures you might do to bring your spouse joy? Can you make them habits?
- Think of ways you can demonstrate respect for your spouse.
- Are you forgiving? If no, how can you become more forgiving? If yes, how can you better demonstrate forgiveness?
- What tasks have you taken over in the last year to help your spouse and bring him/her peace or joy?
- Read Ephesians 5:21. How can you do this “freely and abundantly” in your marriage?
Finally, consider doing everything your spouse asks of you today (maybe even things you know he or she would like to ask you but isn’t asking) with a smile and no complaints. Go overboard for a day, and don’t wait to be thanked. Remember that your generosity pleases God, builds resilience in your marriage, and is strengthening a relationship you made a covenant to keep for a lifetime.