Yesterday, I had the pleasure of having lunch with a friend who I had not seen in quite a while. This woman is about a half-generation younger than me. She is in the early child-rearing years, balancing a one-year old, a three year-old, and a job— whereas I am a recent empty-nester, with my similarly spaced children both away at college. We talked about the stressors of the balancing act she is in the midst of, noting both the joys and the stressors and exhaustion associated with this oft-difficult stage of life.
I asked her how her marriage was doing, noting that she is in the years that, in my book (A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex), I refer to as the “Do No Harm” stage of a relationship. I told her that it is natural for the focus on both the couple relationship and sex to decrease during these years. Still, I warned, enough attention must be paid so that no harm is done to the marital relationship.
Happily, my friend told me that she and her spouse were doing wonderfully. She attributed at least some of this marital satisfaction to the consistent appreciation that she and her partner express to one another. She told me that they often say “thank you” to each other for daily tasks—laughing while revealing that her husband had recently thanked her for putting a frozen pizza in the oven. She also told me that “thank you” was the fifth word her son had spoken (coming in line after “mama,” “dada,” “ball,” and “hot”), and that when he started Montessori school at age two, his teacher specifically commented on how often he said thank you.
For my friend, saying thank you around the house resulted in a polite child and a happy marriage.
Research backs up my friend’s experience. Studies by John Gottman and colleagues reveal that the more couples express appreciation for one another, the more successful their relationships. Gottman found even the smallest gestures of appreciation counted—a smile, a pat, or a simple “thank you.” Likewise, the appreciation doesn’t need to concern large events or actions; on the contrary, Gottman’s research reveals that the more often couples look for positive, daily, small things to appreciate and comment on, the more affection they have for one another. The Gottman Relationship Institute even sells a “Giving Appreciation” iphone app.
Still, you don’t need an iphone or an app to start practicing this powerful relationship improvement strategy. As I explain in A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex, too often in long-term relationships, we stop saying “please” and “thank you.” We also stop telling each other what we like and instead spend our time focused on what we don’t like or what we want the other person to do differently. Stopping this downhill pattern and noticing and commenting on what you appreciate about your partner works wonders. It helps you focus, for example, on his terrific sense of humor rather than on his habit of leaving his shoes by the door. (Interestingly, research also shows that appreciation of a partner’s sense of humor is related to marital satisfaction). Doling out appreciation will also help your partner feel more connected with you, and is likely to result in the giving of return compliments.
As I recommend in my book, focus compliments on both behaviors and on physical attributes. If you think your partner’s eyes look particularly sexy, say so. Remember that every day is foreplay. Appreciative and loving statements are an excellent form of foreplay.
Starting now, say at least two appreciative things to your partner each day. (And while you are at it, include your friends, your children, your relatives, and your co-workers; if my friend’s two-year old can have thank-you be one of his most frequent words, you can too!).