Promoting Gratitude in your Relationships
By: Taylor B. McMahon, LGMFT
In addition to the change of the season and the coming holidays, the month of November always gets me thinking more about the idea of gratitude. I see the word littered in the holiday section of most stores, sewn into pillows on couches to compliment fall décor and then, at the end the month a celebration of all the things we’re grateful for over the past year, rightfully named Thanksgiving. But, do any of these marketing tactics actually get us thinking about what we’re thankful for? Does this season of gratitude actually make us feel anymore grateful for the good things in our life? I’m not so sure.
Since I began practicing couple’s therapy my idea of gratitude has changed drastically. I used to think of it as something I gave to other people, whether it’s a simple “thank you” or “I really appreciate it”, I always viewed it as an offering for someone else. However, there is substantial research that highlights the myriad benefits of expressing gratitude on a regular basis and supports the idea that this expression has benefits for both the person being appreciated and the person showing appreciation. Some of these benefits include but aren’t limited to an increased sense of satisfaction with one’s life and optimism for the future, which sounds fairly enticing if you ask me.
Though my understanding of gratitude has shifted over the years, I have found the same is not true for many of my clients. Despite this annual season of giving thanks, so many of them complain about not feeling appreciated by their partner year-round. I often hear things like, “I feel like he doesn’t appreciate how much I do for us and the family. I only ever hear complaints about the things I missed or haven’t gotten to yet.” Sometimes the other partner is surprised by this and didn’t realize that their partner felt so unappreciated (and possibly overwhelmed).
Other times I hear, “I don’t get thanked for the things that are expected of me either. I don’t expect a cookie every time I mow the lawn or fix dinner for everyone so why should I thank her for things she’s supposed to do?” While I understand his frustration at this perceived double standard, this mindset is problematic and can create disconnection in a relationship overtime.
One way to get ahead of this threat of disconnection is to learn ways in which you and your partner can cultivate a culture of gratitude in your relationship on a daily basis. Even if – especially if – you’re the one that doesn’t feel appreciated, learning ways to show your partner you recognize and acknowledge the goodness and positivity in your relationship can facilitate a stronger connection and lead to more shared gratitude.
Below I offer some suggestions for ways in which you begin to cultivate this culture of gratitude so both you and your partner feel more appreciated.
Reflect. How often do you express gratitude? How do you show your partner you appreciate them? What does your partner do to show their gratitude towards you? Does that make you feel appreciated? If not, what does make you feel appreciated? Do you know if your partner feels appreciated in your relationship? When’s the last time you asked them? Have you ever asked them? Self-reflection is key when trying to understand the reciprocal nature of our actions in a relational context.
Write it down. There is plenty of research on the positive impact of establishing a daily practice of reminding yourself of the good things in your life. By writing down the positive events, feelings, and features of your life, you intentionally bring them to the forefront of your consciousness, which serves as an antidote for more negative feelings like envy or resentment. Furthermore, having a list of the positive aspects of your relationship readily available increases the likelihood you might share one of those items with your partner. (The notes section of your phone is a great substitute for those who don’t have a pad and paper!)
Look for the good. It is so easy to focus on the things we are not getting from our partner. The true challenge is trying to focus on the positive things our partner does and actively point them out. A good practice to go by is, if you expect someone to do something and they do it thank them for it. It’s just as important to thank our partners for the things we expect them to do just as we would for a spontaneous gesture. By recognizing and acknowledging the good your partner does you show them that they are valued and reinforce a positive connection in your relationship.
Don’t wait. Another cop-out I hear too often is, “well they don’t say thank you either!” If you’re waiting for your relationship to naturally change one day and expect your partner to just “get it” eventually, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Change starts with you! If you want things to be different than do something different. If you want to feel more appreciated than show your appreciation more. Researcher Amie Gordon calls this “promoting the cycle of generosity”, which she describes as one partner’s gratitude prompting both partners to think and act in ways that help them signal gratitude to each other, which fosters the sense of being valued.
I encourage you to use this Thanksgiving season to integrate practices of gratitude and appreciation into your daily routine that will last year-round. If you want to be on the same page as your partner you can share this post with them or summarize what you learned from it and how you think it can help your relationship.
We’re grateful to YOU for reading this post!