MORE THAN GIVING
Nobody is perfect. And, the better we know our spouse, the better we know both their strengths and their weaknesses. The longer we live with someone, the better we see their faults, and the more we are aware of each other’s mistakes. What can you do when you are painfully aware of the negative parts of your relationship?
Every day of marriage, we have the choice to focus on the negative, to ignore it, or see past it. Focusing on it by constant nit-picking and fault-finding will erode our sense of partnership quickly. Ignoring weaknesses and mistakes altogether is being unrealistic and can silently undermine our partnership over time. It is better to see past the negative by recognizing weaknesses and mistakes in the context of our strengths and goodness. This requires generosity.
Generosity means more than giving—it means gladly giving more than what is necessary. In marriage, generosity is more than tolerating our spouse; it’s bringing out the best in each other and giving each other encouragement to grow. That means focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses and forgiving mistakes.
One of our colleagues tells a story of a husband who complained for years about the lumps in the oatmeal his wife cooked every morning. This started most mornings with a fight as she defended herself by pointing out some of his failures. This husband could practice generosity by expressing appreciation to his wife for cooking for him even while she was busy with their children, and then just eat around the lumps and enjoy his breakfast.
Generosity is more than not complaining about our spouses’ weaknesses; it’s recognizing and expressing sincere appreciation for their strengths. Perfection is impossible, and sometimes the ordinary, day-to-day interaction we have with our spouses makes their faults seem bigger, so much that we begin to forget their good qualities. Acknowledging the good things about our spouse not only helps us get past their momentary failures, it actually draws out their better qualities and helps them become their best. By being generous with each other this way, we create the kind of uplifting environment in which we don’t have to be afraid of our weaknesses. We create a more secure and stable relationship because our faults are part of what helps us to grow in our marriage rather than the problems that threaten it.
A woman tells a story of visiting friends who had just celebrated their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary. The husband came into the house wearing his work boots and left clods of dirt behind him on the spotless kitchen floor. The visitor, expecting the wife to be upset, said, “His boots certainly do bring the dirt in.” “Yes,” the wife said with a smile as she got up to get the broom, “but they bring him in, too.” In a partnership marriage, we have to accept and forgive much of the “mud” our partners “track” into our relationships. Unintentionally disappointing or hurting our partner is easy to do during the changes and stresses that accompany the arrival of a new baby. Sometimes the offenses are small, and sometimes they are larger. But when we forgive, we give away the hurt, and we give our partner the benefit of the doubt. We believe that their mistakes are because of their weaknesses, and not because they intend to hurt us. Holding on to hurt and harboring doubts about your spouse’s intentions destroys relationships. As one family scholar put it, unless we are forgiving, “Living [relationships] petrify and hearts turn to stone under the gradually accumulating layers of hurt and pain over the years.”
We want to be clear about something, however. Any virtue comes with two vices: deficiency and excess. It is possible to go too far in accepting our partner’s behavior. There are serious problems which have to be confronted, problems that threaten our sense of human dignity and any possibility for partnership if they are not resolved. Generosity is a balance between stinginess and indulgence.
As you find this balance, you many need to get help to solve serious problems. But, you should also know that marriage scholars have concluded that most common marital problems won’t be solved; trying to solve them all only results in discouragement. Some things just go with the territory. For example, research shows that most men get more serious about work when they become fathers because they feel a heavier responsibility to support a family. This often means they spend more time at work. Similarly, when wives become mothers they can’t be as attentive to their husbands as they once were. These kinds of changes can lead to hurt feelings. But when there is no simple solution to problems, one of the most generous acts we give our partners is just accepting the problem, recognizing that our spouse still loves and cares for us deeply even though our circumstances have changed.
The activities below will help you learn how to build more than giving in your relationship, it will help to strengthen the marital virtue of generosity by helping you to focus on each others’ strengths and forgive mistakes.
1. Five to One
Research has come to show that focusing more on positives than negatives in your marriage strengthens your relationship. In fact, the research shows that in a good relationship, there is actually a ratio of at least five positive interactions to one negative interaction keeping the relationship healthy. In the space below, list three of the things that you have been frustrated with in your spouse. Then list five strengths or admirable qualities your spouse has next to each of those things.
NOTE: Follow this activity with Partner Activity #2.
Many of our spouses do things that unintentionally hurt or annoy us. This activity will help you practice forgiveness and let go of your hurt and free your spouse to become better.
1. Think of something your spouse has done that hurt you or a little thing that annoys you regularly. Write it on a piece of paper.
2. Burn the paper or burry it in the ground. This symbolizes your letting go of this hurt and forgiving the mistake in your spouse. You don’t have to worry about it anymore.
If you would like, you could do this activity together with your spouse. Participating in each others’ forgiveness will make this more meaningful. If possible, discuss the things you are forgiving in each other, committing to each other to let them go. Then watch your papers burn or bury them together. The activity can be merely symbolic or a true act of forgiveness depending on your sincerity.
1. Catch the Good
Looking for the best in your spouse and praising him or her for the good and helpful qualities you see is a simple, but very important way to show generosity in marriage. For one week, practice looking for the best in each other. Follow these steps:
Step 1: Each day, try to “catch” each other doing something helpful, showing generosity, or otherwise demonstrating a quality you appreciate. Remember at least one moment each day.
Step 2: As a couple, think of a time every day when you are typically together when you will be able to share with one another the good qualities you have observed in each other. Try to find a time that is associated with an activity, such as eating breakfast. Each couple is unique, so try to find a time that works for you that will help trigger your memory to share your day’s findings with one another. Placing a small note in your “trigger area,” such as on the kitchen table, may help you remember at first.
Step 3: When sharing your findings with your spouse, try to be specific and explain how you saw him or her showing the quality. For example, instead of simply saying, “I think you’re patient,” try saying, “I noticed today how patient you are. I really appreciated how you took your time to read the directions carefully for the baby’s new crib and didn’t get frustrated when it didn’t fit together as easily as you thought it would. I love how you really made it something special instead of just hurrying to get the job done.” Giving praise along with specific examples will not only help your partner to see the good characteristics in himself or herself, but also will help you better recognize how your partner demonstrates his or her good qualities.
Step 4: Remember, practice is the key to seeing the best in your spouse. The more often and the harder you try to look for the best in your partner, the easier and more natural it will become. Doing this for a week will give you a good start to a permanent ritual. Keep it going!
2. Eat Around the Lumps
Sometimes generosity is more than forgiving mistakes and actively seeking the good. It also means accepting some less important things that we dislike that we cannot change, much like eating around the lumps in oatmeal. After completing personal activity #1, sit down together. Share with each other the 15 good things you see in each other. Then promise each other not to pay attention to the 3 negative things on your list any more.
Create Your Own Activity
You may have even better ideas than these for activities that will work in your particular relationship to nurture generosity in your marriage. Be creative! Think of something you can do either as individuals or together and write your activity on the space provided: