Gratitude and the Nurturing of Relationships

Relationships are living entities that need to be fed so as to remain healthy.

Posted Mar 30, 2017

There are many emotions that play a role in establishing and promoting relationships. One emotion that doesn’t quickly come to mind but is very influential is gratitude.

What is gratitude? It is described as a virtue within philosophical and theological venues. At the emotional level, it is the mindset of thankfulness. It may be evoked by something simple: your co-worker remembers that you like fresh peaches and buys some for you at the farmer’s market. Or it could be more complex: your sibling puts aside old wounds to help take care of you after a surgery. 

Why do human beings need this emotion? If “survival of the fittest” is what keeps us in the evolutionary game, why should we need an emotion such as gratitude that suggests indebtedness to another, vulnerability, and weakness? At the relational level, it promotes civility and cooperation, which are essential elements for survival. Interestingly, this emotion of gratitude promotes good physical health, as the science of thankfulness tells us. Deeper still, is what Robert Emmons’, Ph.D., work on the psychology of gratitude has found: gratitude is a source of human strength. 

Yet we often neglect this important emotion of thankfulness. Nowhere is this truer than in intimate relationships. Too often we forget what our partners do for us, and in doing so miss the opportunity to express our gratefulness to them. 

Ryan and Tanya were recently married, busy professionals. Ryan came home and told Tanya that he invited his parents to dinner that Friday night. Tanya was both nervous and irritated about this because 1.) Ryan’s mom was an awesome cook; 2.) Ryan didn’t know a ladle from a spatula and making the dinner would fall on Tanya; and 3.) the timing couldn’t be worse because Tanya had an important presentation at work on Friday. Nonetheless, she found the time and worked hard to make the dinner special. She remembered that Ryan’s mom was lactose intolerant and that his dad hated spicy food; so Tanya focused on recipes that avoided all dairy dishes and were flavorful but not hot. After the in-laws left, Ryan told Tanya how much he appreciated what she had done. During the weekend, Ryan surprised her by bringing her coffee in bed and even agreed to go shopping with her. Most shocking of all, he actually folded and put away the laundry that morning.

When we feel and express gratitude, it can cause a chain reaction of reciprocal good deeds which reinforces feelings of appreciation between those in the relationship. Gratitude enriches through a desire to return the kindness. What else can feelings of gratitude do?

  • Demonstrate care—by the person who performs the good deed AND the recipient of the good deed who acknowledges and gives thanks for it.
  • Foster a reliance on the relationship—both the giver and recipient acknowledge that they want to be involved with each other.
  • Encourage those in the relationship to willingly increase their acts of support (e.g., if Tanya and Ryan continue to help each other and express their gratitude, both will be inclined to do even more for each other).

The act of doing good deeds is not restricted to intimate couples. It can be directed to strangers, acquaintances, close friends, and family members. However, most good deeds are directed to those we know. In fact, the closer the people are to us, the stronger the motivation to perform a favor or good deed. Why is this so? 

  • Part of this motivation stems from a desire to maintain and improve the relationship.
  • It also arises out of expectations.

In close relationships, we depend on each other’s assistance, kindness, and protection. It is these expectations that can buoy our spirits or cast them downward.  For example, if our loved one does not help or seldom performs good deeds for us, we many feel angry, hurt, or disappointed. We don’t feel appreciated. On the other hand, we have no expectations from strangers or acquaintances; therefore, we don’t feel angry, hurt, or disappointed when they aren’t kind or don’t help or protect us. In fact, if they do, we may feel even more thankful than we might if it was someone close to us.

Feelings of anger, hurt, and disappointment can fester and lead to the erosion of a close relationship. Thus, the performance of good deeds and the expression of gratitude are vital in maintaining close and satisfying relationships.

  • These factors play an essential role in the bonding process between two people.
  • They help establish trust and intimacy.
  • Research has found that making an effort to please each other and express one’s appreciation helps maintain marital satisfaction over time and can be an antidote to some divorces.

What often happens in long-term relationships is that the parties develop a set of routines and expectations about which they have come to feel “ok.” For some, this can lead to a sense of complacency and a tendency to take each other for granted. Doing so can threaten the quality and life of the relationship. Relationships are living and breathing entities that need to be fed and nourished if they are to remain robust—no matter how new or old. Gratitude is a potent nutrient; without it, the relationship cannot grow. Indeed, it can suffer and potentially die.

Gratitude is a nutrient that feeds and deepens our relationships. If you perform good deeds and express thankful appreciation to those in your life, you will not only be a happier person, you will help improve the lives of others.