As most couples can attest, it takes hard work to maintain an intimate, stable and fulfilling relationship. Among the many elements that go into a successful partnership, such as values, sexuality, shared interests, parenting philosophies, housekeeping and finances, you might be surprised to hear that one trait stands out as contributing most positively to the relationship. That quality is generosity.
The University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project looked at the role of generosity in the marriages of 2,870 men and women in a study published in 2011. Generosity was defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse [including expressing affection] freely and abundantly.”
“Generosity is going above and beyond the ordinary expectations with small acts of service and making an extra effort to be affectionate,” said research director W. Bradford Wilcox. The study found that the individuals who scored highest for generosity were much more likely to report that they were “very happy” in their marriages.
Sounds good, but what exactly does “a generous partnership” mean, and how do you get there?
• First, your partnership needs to have matured and developed to the point where you go beyond a focus on “me” — beyond the insecurity and selfishness that cause us to view a partner’s behavior primarily in terms of “How does this affect me?”
• If you conceive of a relationship as a competition between two partners, a competition focused on proving who is the better person, or who is going to get more out of it, you can’t have a generous or happy relationship.
• Blaming your partner for disappointments, failures and difficulties in your life will also prevent you from having a happy relationship.
• You have to reach the point where you see what was good and bad about relationships in the family or families you grew up in, so that you do not unthinkingly try to recreate family life as you experienced it, even if it was “perfect.”
• You need to be able to make conscious decisions about the kind of relationship you want, be able to communicate this with your partner, and then make any behavior changes needed to realize those decisions.
Once you develop to the point where you feel sufficiently secure in your ability to give, and your partner is also at this point, you will be able to focus on “we first,” rather than “me first.” You can live in a relationship where you both give in a spirit of generosity, without fearing you will be taken advantage of, or that the relationship is unbalanced.
Here are some practical suggestions for achieving a generous relationship between partners:
• Give by doing daily practical acts of kindness — like cleaning the cat toilet, making dinner when your spouse has to work late or bringing occasional surprise gifts like flowers or your partner’s favorite ice cream.
• Give psychologically by supporting your partner’s dreams and goals.
• Have realistic expectations and don’t expect your partner to focus solely on your aspirations or problems at work.
• Say or do at least five positive things for each negative interaction with your partner, suggests John Gottman, marital researcher, Co-founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute, and author of 40 books including “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail” and “What Makes Love Last?”
Generosity in a partnership involves a state of mind and the behavior, both words and actions that goes with it. It’s a little like that bumper sticker that urges us to “practice random deeds of kindness” — only generosity in this context means deliberately and thoughtfully focusing on your partner. The more you practice generosity, the more it becomes a good habit, and the more it can nurture your relationship.
For more about the UVA study, see http://nationalmarriageproject.org, and “The Generous Marriage” by Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times Magazine, December 8, 2011.
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