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updated 12/9/2011 7:15:32 PM ET 2011-12-10T00:15:32

Generosity between spouses is a key element to a happy marriage, a new study says.

In essence, generosity is the amount of giving that goes on within a relationship, which can mean anything from making your spouse a cup of coffee, to ordering flowers or providing a backrub.

In the study, couples who reported a high amount of generosity in their relationship were five times more likely to say their marriage was "very happy," compared with those who reported a low amount of generosity. All couples in the report had children.

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When a person is generous to his or her spouse, "The underlying message is, you're valuable, you're important," said Dr. Anthony Castro, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.

However, generosity was not as important as sex, researchers found. In the study, married men and women who reported above-average sexual satisfaction in their relationship were 10 to 13 times more likely to describe their marriage as "very happy," compared with those who reported below average sexual satisfaction.

But factors such as generosity may make sex better, according to the study. Couples who reported high levels of generosity, commitment and quality time together also reported high levels of sexual satisfaction. And wives were more likely to be sexually satisfied if they shared household chores with their husbands.

"What happens outside of the bedroom seems to matter a great deal in predicting how happy husbands and wives are with what happens in the bedroom," said study researcher W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

Predictors of a happy marriage
The study, part of the National Marriage Project,surveyed more than 1,400 heterosexual couples between the ages of 18 and 46.

Fifty percent of women and 46 percent of men who reported above-average generosity in their relationship s described their marriages as "very happy." On the other hand, just 14 percent of each sex with below-average generosity in their relationship described their marriage as "very happy."

Generosity works best if you give your spouse something he or she likes, Wilcox said. "[It's] signaling to your spouse that you know them, and are trying to do things for them that are consistent with your understanding of them," Wilcox said. But if, for example, your spouse delights in almond mochas, and you get her black coffee instead, it might not be very helpful, Wilcox said.

Based on the responses, the researchers compiled a list of the top five predictors of a very happy marriage. For men and women, sexual satisfaction ranked first, followed by level of commitment (a sense of "we-ness"), generosity and a positive attitude toward raising children. For women, the fifth factor was above-average social support from friends and family, and for men, the fifth factor was spirituality within a marriage.

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Each relationship is unique
While the factors identified in this study may be a guide to a good relationship, they are based on responses from a large population and don't necessarily apply to individual couples, Castro said.

"Every individual situation is different," Castro said. For instance, a couple may find themselves falling into the 14 percent of couples who are very happy without a high level of generosity.

"Each specific relationship needs to be thought about individually, depending on both individual and partners' needs," Castro said.

The new study was conducted in partnership with the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase the proportion of U.S. children growing up with their two married parents.

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