How to Make a Happy Husband, or a Husband Happy

December 13, 2011

On Sunday, as I was preparing the Coq au Vin for our annual tree-trimming, Mr. HUS sauntered into the room with the New York Times magazine in his hand and a grin on his face. 

“I’m a generous husband.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Yeah, but you know how I bring you coffee in bed every morning when you wake up? The Times says that is the key to a happy marriage.”

That’s a slight distortion, but his point was valid. My husband does indeed bring me coffee each day when I wake. That one small investment of his time each day – a minute or two – builds up considerable goodwill in our relationship. As I drink it, he shaves and tells me what’s new in the world, often mentioning some tidbit that he thinks I might want to use on the blog. More goodwill. I feel valued. Generally, I repay the kindness when he gets home in the evening, pouring him a glass of wine, asking about his day, careful to remember the details from ongoing workplace sagas that may require my input at a later time.

If I were to name just one thing that makes our marriage a standout, it would be this, the small gestures. It’s not the sex, it’s not the nice house, it’s not how smart or successful he is.

The Times article Is Generosity Better Than Sex?, by marriage expert Tara Parker-Pope reports a key finding about generosity from a study conducted by W. Bradford Wilcox at UVA.

Generosity was defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly” — like simply making them coffee in the morning — and researchers quizzed men and women on how often they behaved generously toward their partners. How often did they express affection? How willing were they to forgive?

The responses went right to the core of their unions. Men and women with the highest scores on the generosity scale were far more likely to report that they were “very happy” in their marriages. The benefits of generosity were particularly pronounced among couples with children. Among the parents who posted above-average scores for marital generosity, about 50 percent reported being “very happy” together. Among those with lower generosity scores, only about 14 percent claimed to be “very happy,” according to the latest “State of Our Unions” report from the National Marriage Project.

According to Wilcox, “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.”

The top three predictors of happy marriages among parents are:

  1. Sexual Intimacy
  2. Commitment
  3. Generosity

Sexual satisfaction is so important that only 7% of men and 6% of women with below-average scores described themselves as “very happy” in their marriages. But generosity plays a key role, one that is often overlooked in the contemporary SMP, setting up marriages to fail.

The quiz given in the study asks:

  1. How often you express affection or love 
  2. How often you express respect or admiration
  3. How often you perform small acts of kindness
  4. How often you forgive your partner for mistakes and failings

(You can take the quiz to find out how generous you are in a relationship here.)

The other aspect of generosity I’d like to highlight is #2, expressing respect or admiration. In my experience, this is absolutely key. For example, when my husband tells me about a difficult work situation, my default position is “You are in the right.” Of course, that may turn out to be untrue, but that’s my starting point. My other assumption is, “You are very good at what you do, you command the respect of your colleagues.” I wasn’t always so good at this – I would second guess my husband because any problem at his work made me feel nervous about his role as a provider. Over time I learned that granting him respect, even admiration, no matter what, yielded better results both at home and at his work. (For the record, I also found this to be a critical lesson in parenting. Always give your child the benefit of the doubt until you learn facts that prove otherwise.)

While everyone enjoys being treated with respect by their partner, respect seems especially important to men. According to Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation:

Men see themselves as engaged in a hierarchical social order in which they are either “one up or one down” in relation to others. Their communication styles and reactions to others’ communications often stress the need to “preserve independence and avoid failure.” Women, on the other hand, tend to see the world as a “network of connections,” and their communications and interpretations of others’ communications seek to “preserve intimacy and avoid isolation.”

Others have characterized this as “men need respect, women need love.” Obviously, that’s a simplification but male readers will concur re respect. This recent comment by Gabriel earned praise from the guys:

For men, Respect isn’t just a necessary element of the relationship – it’s a heady aphrodisiac. I’ve seen marital affairs in the workplace start with little more than a woman saying to a man, “Wow. You’re such a hard worker.” It was all over after that. Nothing left but a broken family and two open positions at the office. My guess is that this man who put in long hours and produced solid work was never praised or valued for his work at home. He probably wasn’t praised or valued for much of anything now that I think about it. Along comes a woman who he wasn’t even attracted to initially, and draws him away from a stable life with a little Respect.

In my experience, women don’t really care as much about the idea of Respect as men. It’s lower on their list of priorities. The idea of Respect is to men what the idea of Love is to women – it’s vital, valuable, elusive. A man who feels disrespected is no more likely to hang tough through a relationship than a woman who feels unloved would be. If you want to keep a good man, here are a few suggestions.

Respect him for his positive traits and victories – even if they’re small. If you expect Love from him, be prepared to deliver Respect. You’d be amazed how committed a man will become to you if you make him feel like he’s the hero.

Take an active interest in his interests, BUT NOT IN THE TRADITIONAL SENSE. Trying to learn about cars to impress the hunky mechanic only works in Hollywood. What I mean is, take an interest in him as he’s doing the things he loves.

Those two things – respect and generosity – will set you apart from other women. Give them abundantly. (In fact, remember how I told you in A Drunk Man Never Lies that I would tell you how to win the guy for keeps in the next post? This is it.)

A few caveats:

  •  Respect must be earned. Don’t give it to anyone who doesn’t deserve it, just because you think they’re hot. You’ll just be rewarding bad behavior and it won’t get you love.
  • Generosity should be unconditional, but calibrated to the circumstances. Don’t be showing up unannounced at his apartment after one date with homemade chocolate chip cookies. That screams Stage V Clinger. Don’t get more than one step ahead of anyone in the early days. A more appropriate gesture might be texting to ask how his presentation went.
  • Women will get better results with men if they offer deserved respect sooner rather than later. Ditto for generosity.
  • Men will get better results with women if they offer deserved respect a bit later. Ditto for generosity. Avoid the pedestal. If you make a gesture and it is not enthusiastically reciprocated, cease and desist.
  • In an established relationship, the more generosity, respect and love, the better. This is what makes “very happy” campers. 
  • Focus on the giving, the receiving will take care of itself. If it doesn’t, you’re giving to the wrong person.