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Generosity in Marriage: Small Acts That Make a Big Difference

By Greg Smalley
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small act of kindness breakfast in bed
© Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock
When you show your generosity, you’re expressing an important underlying message that your spouse needs to hear: 'You matter. You’re valued.'

A successful marriage requires more than saying the words “I love you.” Couples need to show sacrificial love in marriage. Spouses need to be generous in their marriage.

I witnessed a perfect example of generosity and self-sacrifice during breakfast one morning. My daughter Annie (9 years old at the time) loves bacon. She could eat a whole pound by herself. But this particular morning, by the time she hit the breakfast table, there were just three pieces left. Annie quickly claimed them.

One catch: I’ve got another bacon-loving daughter, Murphy (17). And she had just come down to breakfast, too. 

Annie gulped down one, holding the other two warm strips of bacon in her hands. And then she paused … before handing one of the pieces to Murphy.

 “Hey, dad, did you see that?” Annie asked me. “I just laid down my life for Murphy.”

I gave her a high-five for connecting the bacon with a Bible study we’d been doing on John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Of course, I did remind her that her sacrifice wasn’t as great as the pig’s!

Sacrificial love in marriage

Annie’s spontaneous sacrifice provides a sweet picture of how sacrificial love in marriage should work. However, as the years go by, these random acts of kindness often begin to fade and all but disappear.

Why? If you’ve been married for a while, you already may suspect the answers. In many marriages, people get so busy working and raising children that it’s easy to become inattentive. Some couples become so familiar with each other, and their lives become so routine, that small acts of love disappear. In other marriages, husbands and wives habitually hurt each other, and the pain is such that neither necessarily want to show each other acts of love.

But it’s never too late to recapture that enthusiasm to “show” our love. As a matter of fact, 1 John 3:18 instructs, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

One powerful way to reconnect is like Annie did with Murphy and bacon: through generosity in marriage.

Generosity in marriage

A 2011 study connected with the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project found that couples who reported a high amount of generosity in their marriages “were at least 32 percentage points more likely to report that they are very happy in their marriage” than marriages with lower generosity.

While the word generosity can be difficult to define, the Science of Generosity site from the University of Notre Dame says it is “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” The two words, freely and abundantly, are key to understanding generosity. The first means that we give with an open hand, no strings attached. The second means we give more than we need to. Both were modeled for us by God (read Matthew 7:11 and John 10:10), so we already have a great teacher. And according to the study, when we give generously — both freely and abundantly — it pays surprising dividends. We don’t expect to receive anything in return when we give generously, but we give anyway.

“In marriage, we are expected to do our fair share when it comes to housework, childcare and being faithful,” Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, told The New York Times Magazine, “but generosity is going above and beyond the ordinary expectations with small acts of service and making an extra effort to be affectionate. Living that spirit of generosity in a marriage does foster a virtuous cycle that leads to both spouses on average being happier in the marriage.”

Small acts of love

How can we show generosity in marriage? It comes down to four basic elements.

Our words. Affirm your spouse by acknowledging who they are. (“I love your sense of humor.”) Compliment them for what they do well. (“You’re an amazing singer.”) Even a simple thank-you can do wonders, and we all too often forget this very simple act.

Small acts of kindness. You don’t need to take your spouse out to a fancy dinner or fly him or her to Paris to show generosity. Cooking a favorite meal might do the trick, or filling up her car with gas, or giving him a much-needed neck message. Surprise them. Think about simple-but-intentional acts — acts that show your husband or wife that you’re thinking of them — to do regularly. Simple but intentional acts remind your spouse that you’re thinking of them and want what’s best for them, even if what’s “best” at the moment is just doing a small chore that your spouse typically does. Send flowers. Bring coffee. Call your spouse just to say, “I love you.” Buy a small gift. These acts of kindness are limitless, bound only by your imagination.

Expressions of affection. Those expressions, from a warm hug to holding hands to (especially) sex, release the “love hormone” oxytocin, which promotes bonding and attachment in relationships and fosters generosity. Remember, sex is a gift from God for a married couple to regularly enjoy. He designed sex not to be just pleasurable, but to bind us closer to our husband or wife. Don’t forget that the Bible begins with a naked couple being instructed to “be fruitful and multiply”! When there is consistent and satisfying sex in the marriage, the individuals feel close and connected, so be generous in your lovemaking and have sex often in a way that feels good to both people.

Grace and forgiveness. You are married to an imperfect person. Your spouse will require heaps of grace. In marriage, grace means that you see your spouse for who they really are — not how they might appear to be when they’re angry or scared or frustrated. We must look at our husband or wife the way that God looks at us: We need to see the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

We also need to show forgiveness, even when our spouse hurts us. My dad used to say that resentment and bitterness are like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. When you fail to forgive, it hurts you and further damages your marriage.

Now, we should be mindful that forgiveness isn’t about being victimized. We’re not talking about letting your spouse off the hook or allowing hurtful behavior to continue. Justice is as important as grace in any relationship. But forgiveness is about setting yourself free so that you can move forward personally and sets up the potential for marriage restoration. It’s about looking forward, not back.

Taking generosity in marriage one step further

Still need a little help expressing generosity in your marriage? Consider how your spouse would want to express it. “[It’s] signaling to your spouse that you know them, and are trying to do things for them that are consistent with your understanding of them,” Wilcox told LiveScience. When you show your spouse you know them, that generosity takes on a deeper level of meaning. And if you’re still uncertain, have your spouse finish this sentence: “I feel loved when you…”

It can be challenging to show this sort of kindness. Researcher and psychologist John Gottman found that successful couples say or do at least five positive things for each negative interaction.Thus, we need five more acts of generosity to every negative interaction we have with our spouse.

But when you show your generosity, you’re expressing an important underlying message that your spouse needs to hear: “You matter. You’re valued. You’re worth every act of kindness I can show you … and more.”We give because we love.

To be generous means to give without expecting anything in return. And yet the payoff — even though we’re not looking for one — can be tremendous. It can help bind you and your spouse ever closer together. It can be the catalyst to true relational intimacy — and an important element to keeping that intimacy alive and thriving. Few things are better than that sort of bond. Not even bacon can match it.

© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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About the Author

dr greg smalley vp of marriage
Greg Smalley

Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the vice president of Marriage at Focus on the Family. In this role, he develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages and help couples in marital crises. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as president of the …

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