by Paul and Lori Byerly
We all know about vicious cycles, where negative things create a feedback loop that causes things to get worse and worse. In marriage, selfishness can start a vicious cycle that causes the couple to be less and less loving and more and more ugly to each other. At best, this makes the marriage an unhappy thing for the couple, their children, and those around them. At worse, the marriage goes into a death spiral.
There is also the opposite of a viscous cycle, known as a virtuous cycle. In a virtuous cycle, good things encourage more good things, and instead of a steady decline, there is steady improvement. In marriage, generosity can start a virtuous cycle. Wikipedia defines generosity as “the habit of giving freely without expecting anything in return” while dictionary.com says “readiness or liberality in giving” and “freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character”. Antonyms for generosity are stinginess, pettiness, and selfishness. We think of generosity as giving what has not been earned, being loving when love is not deserved, and sacrificing to help and bless.
Generosity can be a unilateral choice. You can decide you will be more generous to your spouse, and then just do it – regardless of what your spouse does. This may not be easy in the best of marriages, and can be very hard in a difficult marriage, but it’s a powerful act that can change a marriage to its foundation.
Initially the recipient of generosity may not recognise what is being done. When they do see it, they may assume it’s just being done to get something. The recipient of the generosity may even react negatively, assuming they are being manipulated or set up.
This is the test of true generosity – will you continue to offer generosity in the face of increased selfishness, manipulation, or even anger? Are you really trying to be generous, or are you just trying to get something? Yes, there is a “prize” for those who become truly generous, but the effort and frustration needed to be generous are significant, and if the prize is your only motivation the attempt at generosity is likely to fail.
Generosity, especially when it is clear the recipient is “unworthy” of the generosity, is powerful because it taps into some very basic aspects of human nature. On the positive side, we are social creatures, and we tend to mimic each other even without effort or awareness. When you start being generous to your spouse, your spouse may become more generous without being at all aware they are doing it, and without having to work at it. This response probably won’t be as large as what you are doing, but it is modifying how they treat, you – and others – without a word being spoken.
On the negative side, we feel uncomfortable receiving something we feel we don’t deserve, and we don’t like feeling in debt to others. Giving something to avoid feeling indebted in not a great motivation, but a change of behaviour can bring about a change of heart. On the other hand, if the recipient of generosity is unwilling to be nicer, and does not want to feel indebted, they may try to end the generosity by being mean, or withdrawn, or by starting fights. Continued generosity may wear down such a person, and it may not.
While generosity will usually start a virtuous cycle that leads to a better marriage, we don't see that as the reason, or at least not the primary reason, to do it. As followers of Jesus, we know we are supposed to do what He did – which includes unmerited grace and love for the unlovable. John said “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” [1 Jn 4:20] How much more would this apply to our spouse? If we don’t go out of our way to bless them, how can we claim to love God? If Jesus could forgive those who crucified Him, can’t we forgive a bit of rudeness and selfishness? (We are NOT talking about abuse here.) Is anything less than generosity really acceptable to God? The fact that becoming more generous to your spouse is very likely to benefit you in the end is not surprising – doing things God’s way works better and often ends well.
Are you ready to start being generous to your spouse? Let’s count the cost first. You can’t just do this when you feel like it, it needs to be a commitment to generosity even when you’re tired or feeling selfish. Are you going to keep at it even if you don’t see a change? Are you in it for the long haul because it’s right, or are you just testing it to see what you can get out of it? What if your spouse is so unnerved by your generosity that they try to make you stop; are you prepared to forge ahead as God strengthens you?
Finally, are you going to be generous where your spouse really wants and needs it? Giving what you think they should want, or what is easy for you to give, is not real generosity. Giving what they want and need, even if it’s difficult for you is the heart of generosity. This may mean dealing with things in yourself you have been running from. Being generous means being less selfish, and that will hit you where it hurts. If sex has been an issue in your marriage, being truly generous is going to require you to make some changes sexually. If you have obtained something you wanted by manipulation or fear of you being nasty, you will lose that thing.
If you do this right, it’s going to cost you. However, it’s also going to bless you. Even if your spouse does not respond, being generous feels good. It makes you a better person, and that changes how you see yourself. Being more generous is a step towards being more Christ like, and that will make you a greater blessing to those around you, and a better witness for Him.
By the way, none of this is theoretical on our part. More than fifteen years ago, Lori made a unilateral decision to be generous. She realised that she needed to start at home, with her husband and children. Without a word, she started being generous. I gradually became aware of the change. I also saw myself being more loving and giving, without making any effort. After a couple of weeks I asked Lori what was going on, and pressed till she told me what she had decided. Our virtuous cycle was already going, and when I heard what she was doing my competitive nature kicked in and I tried to “out generous” her. I’m still trying, and she continues to raise the bar.
For us the results of generosity were quick and significant. Lori had reached a place of emotional health and mental strength that allowed her to do a very good job of being generous. For my part, I wanted to be more loving towards her, and her actions just made that easier. Many won’t see as quick and dramatic a change as we had, but most will see a positive change if they keep working at it. Once the virtuous cycle starts, the sky is the limit.
Being generous was a life change and an experiment for me. I knew what the Word said and I was willing to do what was right for the sake of doing what was right, but I was also playing the observer to see how this would impact those around me. I was delighted to watch Paul relax as I became a safe place for him. It was amazing to watch my family and friends open up and blossom under the light of generosity and it felt great to put my faith to action giving my generous muscles a work out. I think in many ways it is like a work out. Yes, you get sore now and then, but it feels absolutely amazing to "be generous" as a lifestyle. There is an incredible blessing to letting God's love flow through your life and you'll find yourself on an amazing adventure as God opens new doors. God truly does honor those who honor Him.
In 2001 Lori started the Generous Wife blog to try to infect other wives with generosity. Ever competitive, Paul started the Generous Husband blog at the same time. Over the years those blogs have grown and changed some, but the heart of them is still being generous to your spouse – loving them better, giving them what they most need, and making your marriage better. We encourage you to visit the blogs and sign up for daily posts by e-mail or RSS feed.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations on this page are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.