When we talk about the Christmas spirit, we think of giving, caring, and generosity. Yes, of course I realize that the theological core of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. But this is actually a supreme act of giving, in which God the Father “gives” his Son out of love for all of us (John 3:16).
Can the Christmas spirit, the spirit of giving and generosity, improve your marriage? Yes, absolutely, according to a recent study from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project. The results of this study are discussed in an article that appears in today’s New York Times Magazine, “The Generous Marriage” by Tara Parker-Pope. Here’s how her article begins:
From tribesmen to billionaire philanthropists, the social value of generosity is already well known. But new research suggests it also matters much more intimately than we imagined, even down to our most personal relationships.
Researchers from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project recently studied the role of generosity in the marriages of 2,870 men and women. 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 — and researchers quizzed men and women on how often they behaved generously toward their partners. How often did they express affection? How willing were they to forgive?
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,” according to the latest “State of Our Unions” report from the National Marriage Project.
Did you catch that? “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.” Conversely, those who are not generous with their spouses had a much lower level of marital bliss.
According to the evidence, there are three top predictors of a happy marriage among parents:
1. Sexual Intimacy.
The first two on the list are not especially surprising. In fact, they’re closely related, in that sexual intimacy in marriage follows from the safety and sharing that comes in the context of a solid commitment.
I’m not actually surprised by the role of generosity in a happy, healthy marriage. It makes lots of sense if you think about it. Theologically speaking, generosity is an expression of grace. And grace is at the center of any flourishing relationship, including marriage.
Let me close on a personal note. As I read this column online yesterday, I thought about what I might do to be generous with my wife, Linda. I remembered that she really wanted me to put up some large, lighted deer in our front yard. Linda found these discarded deer a few years ago. She fixed them up and loves to have them out in our yard during Christmastime. But it takes me a couple of hours to get them set up and working. I’ve been so busy recently that I haven’t had the time to put up the deer. Knowing this, Linda hasn’t bugged me about the deer. I think we both assumed they weren’t going up this year. But I expect Linda felt sad they about this, even though she didn’t say anything.
Inspired by the New York Times, I took a couple of hours yesterday when Linda was away to put up the deer. She didn’t see them until last night, when we took the dog for a walk. She was surprised and very, very happy. So was I.
Can the Christmas spirit of generosity improve your marriage? You betcha. And you don’t have to be generous with your spouse only at Christmas.