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Generosity May Be What Matters Most in Marriage

Kindness and attentiveness act like Super Glue in relationships

By Terri Orbuch, Ph.D.

I was sitting in a waiting room the other day, riveted by the older couple seated across from me. She leaned over and asked him a question, looking directly into his eyes. He said something I couldn’t hear, smiled then patted her on the knee. A minute later, she got up to get a cup of water from the cooler. On her way back, she picked out a magazine and brought it to him. He looked surprised and delighted.

I realize this scene isn't dramatic, but what impressed me as remarkable was the series of small acts of emotional generosity the couple made within a few minutes. Psychologists’ research — my own and others' — shows this to be one of the best “marital life insurance policies” there is. When you act generously toward your spouse on a consistent basis, it keeps your marriage strong and vibrant over the long haul.

Generosity Leads to Happiness

How often do you go out of your way for your spouse just to be kind? Or show your partner how much you value him or her? When we're busy and stressed out, we often forget to thank and acknowledge the very person we chose to share our life with.

For the past 24 years, I have been conducting a study of marriage and divorce. In following 373 married couples, I've found that the individuals who said their partner showed frequent generosity were also the happiest in their marriages. It's the same for couples: Those who expressed frequent generosity to each other in the form of words, gestures or acts reported the happiest marriages. 

Most people understand that happy and healthy relationships require communication, realistic expectations and trust. But another very important — yet often overlooked — factor is emotional generosity: simple acts that make your partner feel valued, noticed, appreciated, respected, loved or desired.

One surprise that my research revealed is that husbands need and crave these gestures more than wives do. Contrary to common belief, men become far more unhappy in marriage than women when they don't receive acts of emotional generosity from a spouse. When they feel affirmed, cared for and admired by their wives, they are more content and fulfilled.

Three Tips to Make Your Marriage More Generous

If thanking your spouse is something you do only once or twice a year, you — and your marriage — could benefit from a change in your behavior. To achieve that fulfillment, practice the following every day.

1. Show gratitude. Expressing gratitude freely, without prompting, is one of the simplest yet most crucial ways to be emotionally generous. It reminds me of a story told by a participant in my marriage study who is still happily married after 25 years:

We “were talking about how so many of our friends are in the process of getting divorced. It's like a virus that's going around our group. He just looked at me and said, 'I'm so lucky to be with you. You're it for me, babe.' It sent shivers up my spine that he still chooses me after so many years. That utterance was so unexpected — he's just usually not romantic like that.”

Even though this kind of language hadn't come easily to him in the past, the response he got from his wife was sufficient reinforcement for him to be more verbally romantic, which in turn increased her positive feelings toward him. 

2. Express love. In general, women express love and caring with words while men show affection through deeds. If we don’t understand the way the opposite sex shows generosity, we may miss it — and recognizing this is essential, since our partner may not be capable of expressing love in the way we'd prefer.


In a generous marriage, partners regularly show and tell each other that they are noticed, cared for and valued. This small detail from another subject in my study never fails to touch me:

“After losing six precious babies to miscarriages and having recovered from four operations, my husband and I still cherish each other. Once, when we were getting dressed up for a formal occasion, I had buckles on my shoes and, without me asking, he got down on his knees and gently buckled them for me.”

3. Share small endearments: It's not difficult to let your partner know that he or she matters to you. Physical touch, of course, is an easy and natural way to be emotionally generous. But there are others. Instead of doing what you would want, put yourself in your partner’s shoes and ask: What would he or she like? Then do it. Here's how one of the happily married husbands in my study, put it:

She “knows how to make me feel appreciated. It's all those little things she does, like making me my favorite dinner on Friday when I finish the last shift of the week. She's always telling me she loves me and that she thinks I'm sexy. No matter how bad things get out there, I feel like a million bucks when I get home.”

How Emotionally Generous Is Your Relationship?

These examples from real-life happy couples demonstrate the simple yet profound effects of emotional generosity. Here are five questions that may shed light on the degree of emotional generosity in your own relationship.

  1. How often do you touch your partner in a nonsexual way — cuddling on the couch, holding hands in public, kissing him or her goodbye, massaging her or his shoulders or touching feet under the table?
  2. When was the last time you felt fortunate to be with your partner — then told him or her?
  3. Do you and your partner feel noticed, admired and valued by each other
  4. How frequently do you carry out a thoughtful act that shows your partner you were thinking specifically of him or her
  5. Do you and your partner feel well cared for by each other?

If your answers to those questions reflect a less-than-ideal level of generosity and satisfaction, I want to remind you that it takes very little effort — but some mindfulness — to increase both. Once you start to make a habit of being kind and giving to your partner, it will become second nature.

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D. (aka “the love doctor”), is a relationship therapist, professor and an author of five books, including Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. She is also the project director of the largest and longest-running NIH-funded study of married and divorced couples ever conducted. Read More
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