Thoughts on Valentine’s Day: Generosity

Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.

The Buddha

Presumably, Valentine’s Day is a time to honor one’s love for one’s sweetheart through the act of giving. While commercial interests have overtaken the day, it nonetheless offers an opportunity to pause and ask a simple question. No, it’s not “what do I want to give my partner?” It’s “What would my lover appreciate receiving?” Perhaps this is a harder question to answer but it’s worth asking nonetheless.

More often than we’d like to admit, we give that which we wish to receive. And by giving, I don’t mean simply that sexy lingerie or the latest iPad. In addition to material presents, we give through words of caring, a labor of love, sexual abandonment, and affectionate touch, among others. It just so happens that we are most likely to give in the arenas we ourselves value, not necessarily in the medium that matters most to our partner. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s just not particularly effective.

So how do you go about giving your mate what the thing that makes his heart sing? Start with your knowledge base and memories of times your spouse has shown joy.  If you can’t recall specifics, you may need to do some detective work. A key ingredient to loving someone is taking the time to know what pleases him or her.

Some couples therapists believe that couples thrive only when they truly know and respond to each other’s needs and desires, at least some of the time. These needs can be the simple material things evoked by Valentine’s Day such as the dozen roses or the box of chocolates. But look at the following list of needs and desires and see if you can anticipate which ones rank highly for your lover. It might even be fun to confirm it with them, to see if you got it right.

Needs and Desires

  1.  Affection
  2.  Sex
  3.  Intimate conversation
  4.  Companionship in shared recreational activities
  5.  Material Gifts/financial support
  6.  Partnership in domestic responsibilities
  7.  Admiration/respect
  8.  Family involvement with children and in-laws
  9.  Excitement and novelty
  10.  Small acts of kindness and consideration

While the list is not exhaustive, it does represent the many ways in which we give and take in our closest relationships. Couples are most likely to report marital satisfaction if they are generous in giving to their mate, drawing from the categories that matter most to their mate. A 2011 report on marriage conducted by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project studied the generosity levels of 2, 870 married couples. Of those couples who scored high on a measure of generosity toward their partner, more than 50% reported being “very happy” in their marriage compared to only 14% of those who scored low in generosity.

In my practice, the couples that keep a running account on each partner’s contributions and acts of caring are the ones who are most unhappy. Generosity of spirit is critical to a thriving relationship. So, maybe the meaning and positive intentions suggested by this increasingly commercialized day can shift to this broader outlook. Valentine’s Day can become a day that reminds us of the value of giving generously and often to those whom we cherish most.