The Pay-it-Forward Effect: Why it doesn’t always work.

Yellow FlowerMaybe you’ve heard that marriage is like a dance. If you want your partner to change, you must lead him or her where you wish to go. More specifically, if you want your spouse to be more giving, you might try being more giving yourself.

Maybe you’ve even heard that here. 

I know you have, because I frequently get push back from readers who tell me that they’ve tried to be more giving, but their spouses are as stingy and selfish as ever. It makes me wonder: Are they married to monsters? Are they really being as generous as they say? Are they overlooking evidence that their spouses are actually very kind? 

Or is something else going on?

After reading a recent study about the Pay-it-Forward effect, it seems that, at least in some case, something else really is going on.

But first, did you know that, at fast food drive-throughs, the Pay-it-Forward effect takes place on a regular basis? The researchers described a day at Tim Horton’s where one customer paid for the person behind her in line. The person behind her then paid for the next person and so on and so forth. This went on for three hours, with 226 customers continually buying coffee for the customers behind them.

These sorts of pay-it-forward chains have suddenly arisen at Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC,  and many other establishments. Let’s try to ignore the fact that people are generously buying other people food that very well may remove years from their lifespan. Pay-it-Forward chains are just beautiful. Knowing they exist makes me feel happy to be a human being for once, you know?

So why does Pay it Forward sometimes fail to work in our closest relationships?

If you’ve been looking for every opportunity to compliment your spouse AND you regularly perform intentional loving acts of kindness AND you’re always on the lookout for kind things your spouse might be doing for you AND you are fairly sure your spouse isn’t a psychopath, here’s what might be going on: The Bystander Effect. I’ll quote the researchers: “When participants observed a low level of helping, it increased their own likelihood of helping; but when they observed a high level of helping, they did not themselves help—they appeared to feel that their own sacrifice was no longer needed.” It’s also called social loafing. If I loved that phrase any more, I’d have to marry it.

How do you turn a social loafer into a Pay-it-Forward comrade? Do you think I know? I don’t, people. But, based on the research, I can make a wild guess: Stop doing it all.

Yes, continue to be kind. Compliment your spouse. Perform loving acts of kindness. But leave a few things undone every day. In this way, you’ll create opportunities for your spouse to pitch in. You’ll also show your vulnerable side. That’s important. Often when one person does it all and the other loafs, the do-it-all spouse comes off as a know-it-all perfectionist, a super human of sorts, the kind of person who needs no help, needs no smiles, and is just generally a robot with skin and mitochondria. I speak from experience.

Don’t be a robot. Be human. Humans are screw ups. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t have the phrase, “Well, you’re only human after all.”

Embrace your human side. Be vocal about your fatigue. Talk about your brain fog. Mention how a neat and tidy room gets you off. Say how hard it is for you to do little things, such as stand in line at the post office without getting angry.

And invite your spouse onto the Pay-it-Forward dance floor. Let’s say the sink is full of dishes. You might say, “Wow, look at that. A sink full of dishes. It hurts my soul to look at that. I have about 5 minutes before I have to go to the gym. I’m going to wash as many as I can. Perhaps you could finish the job? That would be so kind of you.”

When offered an easy way to feel like a good person, most people opt in, even lazy loafers.

What are your strategies? If you are reading by email, don’t forget to click through to comment.

4 comments… add one

  • Rose June 13, 2014, 11:44 am

    Amen to that Alisa!! I have found myself in that position many times. My husband and I are actively working on improving our marriage and things have been going well. I am however, the one who tries to do everything. I realized I had to stop with some of this when I actually bought myself flowers for Mother’s Day and my husband told me that he had been planning to get them. And I knew he wasn’t lying. He was frustrated and he said that it was something he wanted to do for me. And so I have been more specific about my needs and being tired and really have been trying to let him in more. Last night I was exhausted after having a long day taking a really long trip with my toddler to see an ENT surgeon and then getting on the phone and trying to get doctors to talk to one another on top of the usual household stuff. I didn’t have anything left in me and my son walked up to me holding a book before bedtime saying, “Read?” And my husband at (who is a really hard worker…I’m not trying to say otherwise) was kind of chilling and reading the news at the time. I asked him if he could read to our son and told him that I was flat out exhausted. He happily opened up a book and read to our son. In our relationship I think there are two things going on with regards to this issue. I think somehow for me who is many times the “doer if good things”, it’s a control issue…I rarely give my husband a chance to do something thoughtful or good in return. And for my husband, though I obviously can’t completely speak for him…I think being a very intelligent analytical kind of guy (he is a math genius, literally), he doesn’t always know what to do or doesn’t always think of things or ways to help me on his own. When I present him with an opportunity to help of something that I want, he happily does it or finds a way to make it happen. And thus I guess it’s kind of related to the age-old issue: people can’t read our minds, sometimes we just have to tell them what we need. Great post Alisa. ((Hugs)) to you and your family.

  • Ron June 15, 2014, 12:56 pm

    Hi Alisa…I am sorry but I just don’t agree with what sounds like playing games in marriage. In a good marriage, you should be able to discuss things that are bothering you. In our case, it took some counseling early in our marriage. We also have different skill sets, so some jobs I gravitate toward, others she does. Since I am healthier, I do more physically demanding jobs and she does all of the paperwork and organizing. At times we work together. If I want her to help I will ask her. She seldom turns me down without a good reason.

    If you start trying to manipulate your spouse, I believe you are not training them, but setting them up to play games. Talk to them about what is bothering you, and if need be, set up a mutually agreed schedule. Marriage should never be a competition, but a cooperative effort to minimize the stress of life.

    • Jennifer June 21, 2014, 8:31 pm

      Hi, I dont so much think its playing games as offering your spouse a chance to contribute and be helpful to you. Your not toying with minds or tricking them into doing anything they would normally not do. Your simply allowing a time and place for them to help with something. Not always will it work out that you can make a schedule. People are not clear cut and different things will work in different situations. Its great that you have found a solution that works well for you and your wife, but that solution may not work for everyone.

  • Phil December 28, 2014, 11:48 am

    Pay it forward and pay it back work in the same way. Sometimes when you are saying the opposite you are saying the same. Don’t expect any results and magic may happen. People only learn through pain and pleasure. You have to do what you feel is Right for you even when that means you feel you have to be the better person.


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