Finding Happiness as Married Parents
by David Gibson
Both wives and husbands benefit today “when they embrace an ethic of generosity” toward each other, said W. Bradford Wilcox, co-author of the annual “State of Our Unions” report issued jointly Dec. 8 by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families, based in New York.
“One path to wedded bliss may be found by embracing an ethic of generosity,” the report proposes.
In fact, generosity expressed through small actions in marriage holds a leading place among 10 “aspects of contemporary social life and relationships” that the report says “appear to boost women’s and men’s odds of successfully combining marriage and parenthood.”
Titled “When Baby Makes Three: How Parenthood Makes Life Meaningful and How Marriage Makes Parenthood Bearable,” the report draws upon data in three nationally representative surveys.
Wilcox directs the nonpartisan, nonsectarian National Marriage Project. His co-author, Elizabeth Marquardt, is director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan organization.
Frequently enough, films and TV portray parenthood today as an obstacle to a fulfilling, loving marriage, the report notes. And “having a baby alone” is sometimes “portrayed as a savvy response to the uncertainties of contemporary romance.”
In light of such portrayals, the report first inquires whether it is “emotionally easier to parent alone” nowadays and, second, whether parenthood is “an obstacle to a good marriage.” The report’s third basic question involves the “social, cultural and relational sources of marital success among today’s parents.”
Awareness of these sources of success is needed “because children and adults are more likely to flourish when the emotional climate of their family life is positive,” the report explains.
Moreover, it calls attention to the importance today of preparing “young people for the critical transition to parenthood” and providing them “with solid research and insights from successful couples so that they – and their children – can thrive.”
Among its key conclusions, the “State of Our Unions” report finds that:
— Parenthood remains a central aspiration among Americans. Most young Americans still want two or more children.
— “As a culture, we remain certain about parenthood, but not so sure about marriage.”
— Parenting is easier for partners. And, “the emotional experience of parenthood is, on average, significantly better for adults in a married context.”
— “Married parents are more likely than their childless peers to feel their lives have meaning and purpose.”
Furthermore, “while it is true that parenthood may dampen day-to-day marital happiness, especially when mothers and fathers are dealing with the more challenging features of child-rearing,” the report says that “marriage protects parents from the unhappiness and depression more likely to be found among parents going it alone.”
The factors that boost a couple’s odds of succeeding both in marriage and parenthood include a mix of newer and more traditional values, the report observes.
Some factors are associated with what is called the “soul-mate” model that conceives marriage primarily “as a couple-centered vehicle for the pursuit of individual and mutual fulfillment.” These factors include, for example, spousal equality, sharing household work and child care, generosity and a satisfying sexual relationship.
But some factors are more closely associated with a somewhat traditional model of marriage. These include the support of family and friends, a sound economic foundation, commitment, religious faith and time spent together.
Thus, the report suggests that “for many young adults, the best path for forming and sustaining a family is a hybrid marriage that incorporates features from the newer soul-mate model with features from the older institutional model.”
Generosity Predicts Marital Happiness
The report’s discussion of generosity in marriage captured my attention uniquely. Generosity is described as an important, though “sometimes overlooked,” dimension of marriage and family life.
“Married fathers and mothers who make a regular practice of being generous to one another enjoy markedly higher levels of marital quality and stability,” the report insists. Their generosity not only benefits them as a couple, but serves them well as they “confront the challenges of parenthood together.”
The report makes the point that generosity is meant not only to be given, but received. “Husbands and wives who score high on the generosity scale – both in terms of giving and receiving in a spirit of generosity – are significantly more likely to report that they are ‘very happy’ in their marriages,” it says.
“Generosity” is defined here mainly in terms of “small acts of service.” Wilcox said that for a wife or husband, “generosity” means making regular efforts to serve their spouse in small ways – from making them a cup of coffee to giving them a back rub after a long day to going out of their way to be affectionate or forgiving.”
Forgiving the mistakes, faults and failings of a spouse is a sign of generosity, the report says. The same is true of expressions of respect for one’s spouse.
The report includes generosity in a list of “the top five predictors of marital happiness for both husbands and wives, and one of the top five predictors against divorce proneness in men.”
Among other top predictors of marital happiness for both wives and husbands are an above-average commitment to the marriage and an above-average attitude toward raising children.
It may be that spouses who already are happy in their marriage “are more inclined to embrace an ethic of generosity” toward each other, the report acknowledges. It nonetheless considers it “striking that both the extension and the receipt of generosity in marriage are so highly correlated with marital success.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.