The Courage of Our Conniptions

Musings on religion, politics and other unmentionables.

Reflective giving for a happier marriage

New research sheds light on giving and the modern marriage

I'm a giver. Sort of. I tend to give happily and reflexively in my marriage until I've given too much. Suddenly, I'm irritated that I'm wiping down the coffee table while my husband is having a nap. Those of us who came of age in the seventies, eighties or nineties were probably raised on some version of ‘you can have it all.' It's still not clear to me whether this is really possible without threatening the career, the marriage or both-or at least feeling like your life is an endless treadmill set a few speeds too high. Over the years, my husband and I have achieved a kind of balance, at least with the smaller things. He learned to predict which types of giving would generate resentment (I've been banned from cleaning while he is napping or doing much of anything besides also cleaning.) I learned not to avoid work/writing by doing household chores! But there wasn't always a lot we could do about the larger decisions--whose career to follow to what city, how to divide childcare duties and so on. The financially unstable nature of my chosen field (writing) combined with those pesky childbearing issues, could turn even the most optimistically egalitarian couple into Fred and Wilma.

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New research by Aleksandr Kogan looks at the ways marriages function, shedding light on how we give, who benefits from selfless giving, why some people like to give more than others, and which type of giving is better for relationships long term. The study built on past research about what social psychologists have dubbed ‘communal' and ‘exchange' relationships.


The communal model assumes that partners give selflessly, without ‘counting' or expecting anything in return, to foster intimacy and strengthen the relationship. The exchange model is based on reciprocal sacrifices: One partner gives with the intention that the sacrifice will be paid back in more or less equal measure. Not surprisingly, those who sacrifice willingly for the sake of the relationship-- giving up a pet, moving for a partner's job, etc. are much more likely to stay with their partner long-term and be happier in the relationship, while the exchange relationships were more likely to fracture if the balance swayed too far in one direction or the other.


Authenticity was the key mediating factor in the study. The researchers predicted that a feeling of being true to yourself was the cause for ‘communitarians' to have greater sense of joy and satisfaction when making a sacrifice. People have a strong need for self-verification and a cohesive self-narrative. If I consider myself to be a ‘family person' or a generous person, I may have a greater need to make sacrifices for others to feel that my actions reflect my inner self.


The study, which used 69 racially diverse couples from the San Francisco Bay area, tested the hypothesis that those higher in communal strength would experience more joy in making daily sacrifices, greater relationship satisfaction, and more appreciation from their partner. The authors also predicted that this was because the sacrifice would seem like an authentic reflection of givers' true selves. As suspected, those higher in communal strength felt more positive emotions, greater appreciation, and relationship satisfaction. The researchers reported that authenticity fully mediated the links between communal strength, positive emotions and relationship satisfaction; but authenticity only partially mediated the link to feeling appreciated. The team did various manipulations to isolate each of the variables during the study to ensure they were controlling for the desired factor.


The communal vs. exchange relationship can come into play in any number of areas; it's been suggested that part of John Edward's betrayal of Elizabeth stemmed from the fact that he had ‘aged better' than her, rendering the physical exchange- ratio of their relationship unequal. We've all heard of men who dump their aging wives for younger models, and there are a surprising number of women willing to trail after Hugh Hefner in the hopes of getting a spin-off reality show (perhaps leaving less financially-endowed boyfriends or spouses behind). The pure exchange model reveals a cultural shallowness and ugliness, a lack of ‘for better or worse' security and love that most of us aspire to.


I was intrigued by the study but wondered how the outcomes would translate in the larger world of the modern relationship, where some sacrifices are freely chosen and others are forced by the hand of circumstance. There also didn't seem to be much gender analysis. Historically, women have been taught to be givers in their families and communities. I can buy that some people are more intrinsically generous than others, but the idea of purely communal giving without end makes me a bit nervous-even if it is a form of enlightened self-interest, as the researchers suggested. Given the right situation this can lead to a long and happy marriage. But it could also leave someone open to being taken advantage of at home or at work, suffering emotionally, financially or worse. I recall once in Divinity School hearing a local minister describe a widow who gave almost every cent to her church shortly after her husband's death. I wondered if her children had been consulted, what she was living on now, and whole-heartedly wished she'd waited until her own death to make such a gift.


So is your relationship doomed if you're not naturally a ‘generous Jane' (or John)? Not necessarily. There are any number of exchange models which have lasted and thrived over the ages. Marrying for romantic love is a fairly modern invention-and appearances can be deceiving. Growing up in the bible-belt, a fair chunk of my childhood was devoted to ‘wife training.' My character probably skews towards the altruistic end of the spectrum, but a lot of the giving I do stems from an ingrained sense of duty. Once on auto-pilot, I caught myself giving my husband the choicer cuts of meat even though I'd just prepared the dinner. It seemed a bit stone-age, and the type of little thing that in aggregate  might lead to resentment over time, so I forced myself to take the better piece. Who knows? With a little introspection and planning, maybe we can have our steak and eat it too.

Sarah Estes Graham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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