God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.
2 Corinthians 9:7

We were sitting in an airport terminal recently and observed an older couple seated across from us waiting to board the same plane. She leaned over and asked him a question, looking directly into his eyes. We didn’t hear what either of them said, but he smiled and patted her on the knee. A minute later, she got up and brought him a cup of coffee. He looked surprised and delighted.

It wasn’t dramatic. In fact, it was barely perceptible. But this couple showed a series of small acts of emotional generosity within a few minutes. And those small acts are what one researcher calls “the best marital life insurance policy there is.”

Researchers from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project recently studied the role of generosity in nearly 3,000 marriages. Generosity was defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly” — like simply making them coffee in the morning or offering a little back rub (it has little to do with spending money) — and researchers quizzed men and women on how often they behaved generously toward their partners.

The responses went right to the core of their unions. Men and women with the highest scores on the generosity scale were far more likely to report that they were “very happy” in their marriages. The benefits of generosity were particularly pronounced among couples with children. Among the parents who posted above-average scores for marital generosity, about 50 percent reported being “very happy” together. Among those with lower generosity scores, only about 14 percent claimed to be “very happy.”

“In marriage we are expected to do our fair share when it comes to housework, child care and being faithful, but generosity is going above and beyond the ordinary expectations with small acts of service and making an extra effort to be affectionate,” explains Brad Wilcox, who led the research.

Think about that: Couples who reported a high amount of generosity in their relationship were five times more likely to say their marriage was “very happy,” compared with those who reported a low amount of generosity.

A good marriage is a contest of generosity.
–Diane Sawyer

So how do you cultivate a generous spirit in your marriage?

You begin by putting away the measuring scales or the scoreboard. If you’re keeping track of who gets what (“he went golfing so I’m buying new shoes”) you’ll never get there. As Saint Theresa observed, “When one loves, one does not calculate.”

Second, you’ve got to focus on what your spouse likes. If you know it would mean a lot to your partner to gas up the car or turn down the bed or sweep the porch or watch a particular movie or play a video game together, then that’s where you want to put your energy. If your spouse delights in a triple tall nonfat latte, and you get her an almond mocha instead, you’ve missed the mark. Generosity works best when it signals to your spouse that you know them and their personal desires.

Third, don’t neglect the intangibles. Sometimes a spirit of generosity is found when we give our spouse the benefit of the doubt by not questioning their reasoning. It’s also found when we give our spouse credit for a good idea. And it’s certainly found when we give our time. A generous spirit simply sets selfishness aside and gives.

Finally, if you want to have a generous spirit in your relationship, give without expecting anything in return. This is crucial. Generosity is never a down payment on a gift you’re wanting. Generosity is only as valid as the motivation behind it. It must come from the heart with no strings attached. To paraphrase Bob Hope, if your generosity does not come from your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.

Reflect and Respond

What’s an example of a “small act of emotional generosity” either of you has done for each other? Or what’s an example of one you’ll do this week?

Go ahead, tell us in the comments.

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