It's How You Do It That Matters for Relational Satisfaction
What many people get wrong about giving good gratitude.
Posted Nov 24, 2018
Nearly everyone understands the importance of being grateful. And during this time of year, there tends to be a marked emphasis on the positive impact that gratitude has on our lives. This focus is especially powerful since being grateful for our blessings – like our friends, family, and significant other or spouse – is associated with greater individual well-being.
And gratitude may be one of the most important positive emotions to cultivate for thriving romantic relationships as well, according to research.
However, feeling grateful alone is not enough for relational satisfaction. It’s acting upon these feelings that matter. We need to express our gratitude to our partner. After all, our partner is not a mind reader. We need to tell them how we feel about them.
Sadly, many people do not feel that their partners appreciate them. Many relationships fall apart not due to one big problem but rather a lot of little things that add up over time. Perhaps repeatedly feeling overlooked, unacknowledged, or taken advantage of, for example.
We need to make it a habit to express our appreciation to our partner.
In our book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, we recount the story of “Tonya and Marco,” whose marriage collapsed after twenty-plus years of marriage. As we mentioned in a previous post, Tonya did not feel appreciated by Marco. She could only recall two times in their entire marriage where Marco expressed his appreciation for her. She said he rarely expressed his gratitude to her, which caused her to wither over the years. Eventually, she left, to the utter surprise of Marco who didn’t understand what he did. It’s actually what he didn’t do that she felt caused their relationship to unravel.
We can’t overemphasize the importance of expressing gratitude to our loved ones for relational satisfaction and longevity. In fact, expressing gratitude has been found to be important for both partners—the giver and the receiver. In one study, couples who expressed gratitude well to one another were about half as likely to break up six months later. Gratitude was found to serve as an emotional glue in that it makes a partner feel “cared for, understood, and validated.”
However, for optimal relationship satisfaction, it’s not just if you do it, but how you do it that matters, according to research.
Gratitude can serve as a relational booster shot if the gratitude is expressed well, in that it is “other” focused, rather than “self” focused. In other words, focusing on praising your partner and his or her qualities and actions rather than the benefit to yourself.
For example, if your partner has been especially helpful around the house lately or roasted and carved the holiday turkey, you might automatically react by saying, “Thank you. You really helped me out.” Or “Yummy! You know how much I love turkey.”
While these remarks aren’t bad, of course – after all, you are acknowledging your partner and could be worse off by not saying anything at all – you could do much better by shifting the focus from yourself to your partner. Instead, try responding with something like:
- "Thank you. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in tidying up our home. It’s this thoughtfulness that I see in you time and time again that makes you such a special person.”
- “I really appreciate your attention to detail and the care you took in making the turkey. Your patience is remarkable! Whether working with your students or interacting with our son, these qualities are such a beautiful part of who you are.”
So think of a recent time you thanked a loved one. Reflect for a moment on your expression of gratitude. Next, ask yourself these two questions:
- Did you focus on the other person, or the self?
- If you focused on the self, how could you reframe that?
Giving good gratitude is a skill that can be learned. Expressing it well and practicing it regularly will help boost your individual and relational happiness.
Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018) Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.