When researchers from the University of Virginia asked 3,000 men and women what the most important quality in marriage is in 2006, they were expecting the answers to be things like “frequent sex,” “good communication,” and “common interests.” Instead, most of the responders said “generosity.” Surprised? By now, most researchers who study long-term relationships aren’t. In 2014, researcher John Gottman listed kindness and generosity as the two most important elements in a lasting union, and more and more studies are linking generosity with happiness in general.
Here are some of the most important things you should know about generosity, especially if you’re looking to apply it to your relationship:
1. If you are not naturally generous, you can learn how to be.
A 2007 study out of Hebrew University showed that some people are programed to have a more generous nature than others. “The experiment provided the first evidence, to my knowledge, for a relationship between DNA variability and real human altruism,” lead researcher Dr. Ariel Knafo said.
This does not mean you are doomed to selfishness. Think of generosity as a muscle. You can give yourself a kind of “workout.” You start at the gym without much capacity to lift even a few pounds, but over time you build muscle strength. Generosity is the same. It may feel strange and even counterintuitive, but if you want to be generous and act as though you are, you can will yourself to get better at it.
2. Developing a spirit of generosity is not about self-sacrifice or scorekeeping.
Giving until it hurts or trying to buy affection does not develop a healthy relationship. True generosity is also not doing things to make yourself feel smug, superior, or to ease guilt. It does not take the place of caring for yourself or expecting your partner to do his or her part. For example, one of the key predictors of marital success is domestic equality in the home. This practice is not about denying your own needs but about understanding that when you give, something powerful happens inside you. Happiness, self-esteem, and well-being are connected to enjoying caring for others.
3. Generosity includes forgiveness, which is essential for healing and avoiding grudges.
All relationships are full of ruptures and disagreements. Minor infractions are committed often: a confidence broken, a promise forgotten, a complaint that feels like an unfair criticism. Of course, this also means that it’s important that people are willing to apologize, to make amends, and to hear their partner’s complaints without being defensive. When it comes to couples, most conflict arises when people hold on to small issues that evolve into big ones. Certainly, major betrayals require amends and healing. But when smaller annoyances are resolved easily, they leave more room for appreciation, which allows a relationship to thrive. A generous heart facilitates this with much more ease than a stingy one.
4. One of the most important ways to cultivate generosity is to practice giving your partner the benefit of the doubt.
Your first interpretation of your partner’s behavior should be in their favor. If he doesn’t call when he said he would, he probably got busy at work. If she is late to the restaurant, maybe traffic was heavier than usual, or she had an unexpected issue to take care of. If he missed acknowledging an important occasion, maybe he had more on his mind than usual. If she is not very affectionate lately, perhaps she is worrying about something or having a bad day. This is not the same as letting major neglect and infractions slide; instead, it is summed up by the adage, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
5. Generosity helps your sex life.
Let’s not forget this important benefit: Generosity supports a healthy sex life. Good foreplay begins with generosity. When we turn our partner on by doing what they like, rather than what we think they should like, we are being generous lovers. Letting our partner know when we are pleased, appreciating their efforts, and being willing to hear and explore their fantasies adds richness to our relationships.
Keep in mind that this is not the same as doing something we can’t stand—being open to their sexual desires does not mean ignoring your personal boundaries or going against your own integrity. Also, being generous does not mean having sex each time your partner asks: You are always entitled to say “no.”
Moreover, giving does not mean giving in, as the former is a gift freely given, and the latter quickly leads to resentment. Giving also works in the reverse—meaning you accept your partner’s “no” with kindness and understanding, even though it’s not what you want to hear.
6. “Turning toward” and the generous heart.
Remember in the early days of your relationship when just looking at your lover provided a rush of endorphins, when you couldn’t hear enough of their stories, and all your partner’s interests were fascinating to you? We can become habituated to those same tales, and some of us may even feel our eyes roll when we hear the annoyingly familiar worries, complaints, or nostalgic stories we’ve basically head a thousand times.
Working with couples for over 37 years, and being married to my spouse for nearly as long, I know that one of the most important gifts we can give our partners is paying real attention to them. Notice how your partner is feeling, remember what is important to them during their day, and listen to their thoughts and ideas (even if you’ve heard them before or don’t have a natural interest in them).
Generosity is important in every part of a relationship. Giving and accepting affection, doing things for one another to make life easier, forgiving each other, and keeping your partner sexually satisfied all require a generous heart. And for those of us who have a hard time getting out of our own heads, it is a skill that will help us have less stress, be healthier, and live longer.