“Please” and “thank you” often come out of our mouths automatically. How can we use true gratitude and thankfulness more fully to cultivate healthy relationships?
Gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”
As children we’re taught to say “thank you” automatically in return for a favor. On this surface level, we are taught that gratitude is an appropriate social response.
At the same time, ona more complex level, gratitude is a spiritual way of being. When we truly feel gratitude, we experience heartfelt awe and appreciation for the goodness of something outside ourselves. Having gratitude towards someone or something means respecting its value and treasuring how unique, beautiful, or indispensable it is.
New studies support the idea that gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships. As marriages move past the honeymoon stage, couples go from appreciating and loving every little detail about each other to taking each other for granted. Amie Gordon, a psychologist from U.C. Berkeley, blames this for the downfall of many relationships: ”You get used to having [your spouse] in your life and forget why you chose to be with them.” We become deadened to our spouse’s special qualities and instead focus on things that annoy us about them. These doldrums leave couples confused and discouraged: “Maybe the man they married isn’t so great after all…What happened to the spark in our relationship?...What do we do now?”
Dr. Gordon’s study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores the role of gratitude and appreciation in maintaining long and healthy relationships. In the study, 50 committed couples were given a week to fill out appreciation journals. On days when one partner reported feeling more appreciated, he or she tended to appreciate his or her partner more the next day.
Couples who had ongoing reciprocal appreciation were less likely to break up in the next nine months and even reported being more committed at the end of that time. The researchers concluded that a nourishing cycle of encouragement and appreciation provides extra incentive to maintain our relationships. In other words, when we appreciate our partners, we develop trust and respect. When we feel appreciated, we feel needed and encouraged.
In the second part of the study, Gordon’s researchers observed how couples of all ages—from 18 to 60—communicated appreciation. The team noticed that “highly appreciative” pairs tended to use body language and response skills to show that they valued their spouses. Foremost of these was a Power of Two favorite skill: active listening. When their partner spoke, appreciative spouses leaned in, made eye contact, and responded thoughtfully to what they were saying. They made it clear that they were listening to and digesting what their spouse said, thereby showing that they valued their spouse’s opinion. Appreciative couples also used touch and physical encouragement such as handholding or an encouraging pat on the leg.
This study observed the healthy relationships benefits of naturally appreciate couples. The flipside is that some couples are not naturally appreciative. It can be incredibly discouraging to not feel appreciated—you may even feel like your marriage is over. Luckily, our behavior and thoughts are malleable; just as we fell out of patterns of love and gratitude, we can grow back into them.
The key to sparking healthy relationships with gratitude is to take the initiative: “Instead of just waiting for the other person to make you feel good, you can jumpstart that cycle and take it into your own hands by focusing on what’s good in your relationship,” says Dr. Gordon. Start with small and easily achievable goals, such as giving your spouse five compliments a day, or simply smiling at her more often.
Gratitude is a skill that you cultivate—nurture it in yourself, and soon your will see positivity radiate back at you.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.