Skip to main content

Forget the expensive bauble he gave you over the holidays. And it's not about the trip your wife promised. Nor is it a matter of who wears the pants in the family.

The secret to marital happiness is as simple as making your spouse tea in the morning. Turning down his side of the bed. Giving her a back rub.

Small acts of kindness are not just what we should be practising in the world at large, it would seem, but also right in our homes.

The generous marriage has a much greater chance of being a happy one.

That's the finding of a recent study by the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, examining the role of generosity in marriages. Defined as "the virtue of giving good things to one's spouse freely and abundantly," such thoughtfulness adds a new dimension to our understanding of how couples can build a strong, stable partnership, say the researchers. Their questions were directed in three areas. Did spouses offer small kindnesses to each other? Did they regularly express affection? Were they able to forgive? The researchers claim that this is the first empirical study of generosity.

A happy marriage is not just about satisfying sex, in other words. (Although, of course, it's about that, too.)

In fact, sexual satisfaction came first as the factor that cements a partnership, followed by a sense of commitment. Generosity was third. Other factors include a positive attitude about raising children, social support from friends and family and spirituality within marriage. All 2,870 couples studied had children.

Undertaken in co-operation with the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, an organization headed up by Elizabeth Marquardt, a famously pro-marriage family scholar who argued in her book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, that even amicable divorces profoundly shape the lives of children in negative ways, the study set out to counter what it calls "the increasingly individualistic tenor of modern life."

In that way, the study can be seen as another backlash against the popular divorce culture, not unlike books such as Mark O'Connell's The Marriage Benefit: The Surprising Rewards of Staying Together and Maggie Scarf's September Songs: The Good News about Marriage in the Later Years which criticized the consumerist attitude in modern marriage – the idea that if a partner no longer pleases you as he did when you first acquired him, you promptly trade him in for a different model.

"Since the 1970s and the advent of the Me Generation in North America, there's been a stress on seeing marriages as a vehicle for fulfilling individual needs as opposed to (at least in part) an opportunity to serve your spouse on a regular basis, something that is good for both you and your partner," comments W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. As marriage came under scrutiny in the wake of feminism, the focus of most academic study was on issues of gender equality, he notes.

And yet the Holy Grail of the equitable marriage is far trickier to find than a hot cup of tea for your beloved. Among those parents with high scores on the generosity scale, 50 per cent reported their marriage as "very happy." Among those with lower generosity scores, only 14 per cent claimed to be "very happy."

"It's signaling to someone that you want to go above and beyond the call of duty. On a regular basis, it's signaling that you value them," says Prof. Wilcox. "It's really little acts of service that don't cost a huge amount."

Feeling appreciated goes a long way to making someone feel good, even if he does have to clean up the kitchen every night. But it's not about positive reinforcement, the researchers quickly point out. "Generosity is often motivated by a desire to benefit one's spouse, not to receive reciprocal benefits," they write in the study.

A generous marriage makes both the giver and the receiver happy. Kind acts help engender a sense of gratitude, which research shows is linked to positive feelings. And the giver benefits from the altruism, another important factor in studies of well-being.

It may seem self-evident – a basic part of being human. But generosity toward loved ones or even friends is often overlooked these days. "Part of it is that people are very busy," Prof. Wilcox says in a telephone interview. "They're on their Facebook page or watching TV, and there's little free time to devote attention elsewhere." It may also be a function of the child-focused family model, in which helicopter parents spend more time devoted to nurturing their children's talents and interests than they do cultivating their marriage.

All marriages are opaque, but this study parts the curtain a little bit on those private, domestic behaviours that make partnerships strong. It's a welcome respite from the popular pastime of cooing over celebrity marriages, seemingly made in heaven, as a couple canoodles on the red carpet only weeks, or even days, before announcing their split.

As a culture we underrate the importance of kindness in our romantic relationships. We think it's about how "hot" someone is, what kind of car they drive or what someone does for a living. We are enamoured of the grand gesture – being whisked away on a Caribbean holiday at short notice. But the study shows it's not the big displays of affection but rather the small, frequent, even mundane, ones that matter.

Which reminds me of something Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor of Cosmopolitan, once said to me in an interview. "Forget the charmer," she advised, wagging a finely manicured finger. "Go for the man who is your best friend."

Interact with The Globe