Is There a “Weak Link” in Your Relationship?

Recent research suggests gratitude is only good if both partners are grateful.

Posted Sep 24, 2019

Source: Pixabay

Gratitude is good. But is one partner’s gratitude good enough? A new study in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests it might not be.

The researchers, McNulty and Dugas, tracked 120 newlywed couples over three years and measured each partner’s feelings and expressions of gratitude at the start of the study, after the first year and then again after the second year. They also asked them how satisfied they were with their relationship every four months for three years.

McNulty & Dugas, 2019
Source: McNulty & Dugas, 2019

What they found was that gratitude was good for the quality of the relationship, but only if both partners were high in gratitude. At the start of the study, the more grateful people were, the more satisfied they were with their relationships, but only if their partner was also high in gratitude.

The same was true over time—grateful people who also had grateful partners didn’t experience the same drops in satisfaction across the three years as the rest of the couples in the study. In fact, they were the most satisfied group at the end of the study. On the other hand, grateful people who had ungrateful partners showed the steepest declines in satisfaction across the three years, ending up the most unsatisfied.

Whereas prior work has found that people who feel more appreciated become more grateful, suggesting that one partner can boost the other partner’s gratitude and relationship quality, these findings highlight the other side of that dyadic cycle—one ungrateful partner may be able to pull the other partner down over time, at least in terms of their satisfaction with the relationship. The authors of this study did not find that one partner’s gratitude predicted the other partner’s gratitude. 

Source: verkeorg/Flickr

Thus, it seems that in this sample at least, there is a pathway other than diminished gratitude through which having an ungrateful partner makes a person less satisfied with their relationship. Perhaps it is that ungrateful partner isn’t as responsive, or doesn’t appear as committed to the relationship.

Whatever the pathways through which ungrateful partners affect each other, this study suggests that over time having just one less grateful partner may be enough to speed up the inevitable decline in relationship satisfaction. Of course, this is one correlational study so more evidence is needed before you make any changes to your relationship as a result of these findings. Nonetheless, it is a nice reminder that it takes two when it comes to making a relationship work!


McNulty, J. K., & Dugas, A. (2019). A dyadic perspective on gratitude sheds light on both its benefits and its costs: Evidence that low gratitude acts as a “weak link.” Journal of Family Psychology.