In fact, generosity ranked just behind sexual satisfaction and commitment as a predictor of a happy marriage. A positive attitude toward raising kids came in fourth. For the last of the top 5, men valued spirituality within a marriage, while women valued a strong network of social support from friends and family.
The researchers told the New York Times Wellness blog that generosity is "'the virtue of giving good things to (one's spouse) freely and abundantly,' and encompasses small acts of service ..., the expression of affection, displays of respect and a willingness to 'forgive him/her for mistakes and failings.'"
The findings are part of the State of Our Unions 2011 report, "When Baby Makes Three — How Parenthood Makes Life Meaningful and How Marriage Makes Parenthood Bearable." It was produced by the National Marriage Project and a partner, the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. The results were based on a survey of 2,870 married men and women ages 18 to 46.
The report authors, W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt, wrote in the Atlantic last week that: "A substantial minority — about 35 percent — of husbands and wives do not experience parenthood as an obstacle to marital happiness. These couples seem to navigate the shoals of parenthood without succumbing to comparatively low levels of marital happiness. What is their secret? We identified 10 aspects of contemporary social life and relationships — such as marital generosity, good sex, religious faith, thrift, shared housework and more — that seem to boost women's and men's odds of successfully combining marriage and parenthood."
They noted that when each partner put the other first as the core of a couple's marital ethic, both are happier. That includes small acts of kindness, like a back rub after a long day, to "going out of their way to be affectionate or forgiving."
The ratio the report suggests as a recipe for a happy marriage is five positive interactions for every negative one.
Among the study's other highlights:
Married people are happier as parents than single people are. Cohabiting parents "fall in between" on the happiness scale.
Married parents say they find life meaningful at higher rates than their childless peers. And more than a third of married people do not find parenthood gets in the way of a good marriage. But the identified factors that increase the likelihood of combining a happy marriage with parenthood include those listed earlier, as well as a hybrid approach that embraces institutional features of married life like shared faith and family support and a newer approach that includes "soul-mate style features" like sharing housework, date nights, generosity and sexual satisfaction.