The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Giving Marriage

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

What is the glue that holds marriages together? Why do some couples have gloriously happy marriages, while others split in anguish?

W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Jeffrey Dew at Utah State University point out that while many, many recent studies have focused on how couples’ access to and use of different resources (such  as education, income, and division of labor) impact their chances of staying together, very few have focused on “other factors now influencing marriages, including positive attitudes and behaviors that may be associated with high-quality, stable marriages.”

Wilcox and Dew propose to study just one of those positive attitudes and behaviors, namely generosity, or “giving to one’s spouse.” Specifically, they “operationalize generosity as giving good things to one’s spouse by regularly engaging in small acts of kindness, expressing affection, expressing respect, and forgiving one’s spouse.”  They speculate that generosity may be one of many “relationship maintenance” behaviors, which they suggest “are a form of social exchange in contemporary marriages.”

The researchers use a sample of 2,724-2,730 adults drawn from the SMG, a survey measuring couples’ experiences. Their dependent variables were marital satisfaction, marital conflict, and perceived divorce likelihood, measured by couples’ responses to questions regarding such factors as fairness, communication quality, sexual intimacy, conflict over children or money, etc. The independent variable was generosity, expressed through measuring “(a) small acts of kindness . . . (b) expressions of respect, (c) displays of affection, and (d) forgiveness.”  The researchers analyzed these answers using a number of statistical models, while controlling for participants’ age, marital duration, number of minors in the home, education, total household income, and race/ethnicity.

The study found that the “partial correlations suggested relationships between spousal reports of generosity toward the participant, participant reports of generosity toward their spouse, and marital quality.”  More specifically, “[e]very one-unit increase of spouses’ reported generosity was associated with a 0.35-point increase in participants’ reported marital quality (ß = .31), a 0.17-point decrease in participants’ reports of martial conflict (ß = - .14), and a 0.56-point decrease in participants’ subjective divorce likelihood (ß = -.20).”

Due to limitations in their data, the researchers were not able to determine causality, and thus could not say for sure if more generous couples experience higher-quality marriages, if more happily married couples are more likely to be more generous, or if the two variables are “reciprocally causal.”  Nonetheless, they say, their study is valuable, because it adds to the existing literature on marriage and points out the correlation between high marital quality and high levels of generosity. Interestingly, couples experience higher levels of marital quality both when they give and when they receive generosity within their marriages. If acting like you have a better marriage may be a key to actually gaining a better marriage, perhaps struggling couples should give higher doses of generosity a try.

(Jeffrey Dew and W. Bradford Wilcox, “Generosity and the Maintenance of Marital Quality,” Journal of Marriage and Family 75 (October 2013): 1,218-28.)