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Why You Should Thank Your Partner More

Looking to the future, and building stronger ties.

Key points

  • Relationship partners often go about their days without regularly thanking the other for favors or acts of service.
  • New research built on the "Strong Relationship Model" shows how easy it is to use thanks to build strong ties with your partner.
  • Thinking of your partner as someone who is worthy of gratitude can help reshape your relationship for years into the future.

In long-term relationships, it’s very easy to downplay the importance of gratitude. The constant interaction of give and take means that the need to say thanks really doesn’t seem all that important.

In the morning, you stop by the pharmacy to pick up your partner’s prescriptions, and later in the day, your partner cooks dinner. Your partner doesn’t comment on your having run the errand for them, and you don’t let your partner know how much you enjoyed their cooking. Why should you? Isn’t it just understood that people do things for each other in a relationship?

According to new research by the University of Kentucky’s Nathan Wood and colleagues (2022), it is precisely the need to express gratitude toward your partner that can foster your relationship’s strength. Rather than being the last person in the world you should thank, your partner is the most important one to recognize when they help you, even if that help doesn’t seem all that significant.

The Model of Strong Relationships

Wood et al propose that gratitude is important to a relationship not only because it fosters positive feelings between partners, but also because it recognizes the importance of your partner as a “person.” In the Strong Relationship Model (SRM), the underlying framework of the research, when you acknowledge what your partner does for you, this reinforces the idea that your partner is more than an object—not just someone who is there to satisfy your own needs and wishes.

Countering this “instrumental” view of your partner as someone who serves as a means to an end, the “relational” view advocated by the SRM suggests that you instead recognize how much your partner actually serves to define your own sense of self. In their words, “the self, or ‘I,’ is only possible within a relational context and continues to remain relational over time” (p. 3).

It may be more customary, particularly in a society that values individuality, for people to worry about “losing themselves” in their relationship. “Individuation,” the authors note, leads individuals to put themselves first and their relationship second.

If all of this makes sense to you so far, your next question might be to wonder where gratitude fits into the SRM. Here is where the second main point of the authors becomes relevant.

Introducing the concept of “ethical responsiveness,” Wood et al. cite previous work to assert that “as interdependent, relational beings, we have inherent ethical obligations to each other” (p. 3). Fundamental to dyadic coping, or the ability of a couple to deal with stress, is the idea that partners actually watch out for and support each other. Seeing the partner not in the "I-It" but in the “I-Thou” sense (i.e. from a relational vantage point) means that you would, when the chips were down, feel as responsible for helping them as you would for yourself. Expressing gratitude helps alleviate your partner’s stress within the context of a responsive action.

Testing the Strong Relationship Model

All of these components of the SRM form a system in which ethical responsiveness becomes the process that links stress to relationship quality. When partners act in ethically responsive ways, they take the responsible actions of expressing gratitude, support, kindness, and affection which in turn promotes “relational connectivity,” or feelings of intimacy, belonging, and friendship. Partners who instead are unresponsive, operating primarily out of self-interest, will regard the other as “a nuisance or a means to their own ends” (p. 5).

Using a sample of over 1,500 couples studied over a two-year period derived from an original panel of over 12,000 randomly selected German couples, the authors asked both partners to rate themselves on perceived stress, the responsiveness shown by their partners during times of stress, and perceptions of responsible actions taken by their partner. Gratitude was assessed with the questions “How often does your partner show he/she appreciates you?” and “How often does your partner express recognition for what you have done?”

Putting together the responses of both partners, the U. Kentucky-led research team measured intimacy with the question: “How often do you share your secrets and private feelings with your partner?”

Scores on these very simple questions, derived through statistical analysis as being key indicators, allowed Wood and his coauthors to test their predictions based on the SRM. In keeping with the model, ethical responsiveness proved to soften the negative effect of stress, which in turn, predicted higher gratitude-recognition scores. These scores ultimately predicted greater relational connectivity. Partners who perceived their partner as an “other” (not an object) had a stronger ethical demand to care for them. In turn, when partners believed they were seen as an “other,” especially when stressed, this set off a “protective cascade” of expressions of gratitude that in turn fostered feelings of intimacy.

By responding to your partner’s stress, then, you show that you are concerned for their well-being, which also serves to reinforce the feeling that “we are in this together.” Gratitude helps to bind you together with your partner which further “strengthens the relational narrative” (pp. 13-14).

Putting Gratitude to Use in Your Relationship

As you can see, even a seemingly insignificant expression of gratitude, or at least recognition, has potentially widespread effects on the quality of your relationship. Although the U. Kentucky study examines the much broader philosophical questions of identity and self-definition, there are definite practical implications of their work.

Think back now on those daily acts of support that you and your partner show toward each other. Consider the situation of your partner fixing dinner. You could eat the food without comment, or you could take note of how much you enjoyed it as either (a) an old favorite or (b) something new. You don’t have to go overboard with your thanks, but just by making a specific observation, this shows your recognition of your partner’s efforts.

Imagine further that your partner prepared dinner despite having a busy workload during the day or a full evening of outside events. All the more reason, based on the SRM, to acknowledge how much this means to you.

To sum up, the most basic of gestures to recognize and thank your partner may produce effects well beyond those you might imagine. Going from what the authors call an “I-It” mode to an “I-Thou” can help you define or redefine your closest relationship in new and more fulfilling ways.

Facebook image: Viktoriia Hnatiuk/Shutterstock

References

Wood, N. D., Fife, S. T., Parnell, K. J., & Ross, D. B. (2022). Answering the ethical call of the other: A test of the strong relationality model of relationship flourishing. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12614

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