One of the best things you can do for your marriage and for your overall happiness is to actively cultivate an attitude of gratitude. It requires some dedicated focus, but it’s much easier than you think!
Here’s an example why:
Last year we decided to paint our house gray, so we looked at many shades of gray at the store. We even compared all the gray houses in our town, and then one day I noticed the perfect shade of gray on a parked car - so I took a picture! I was relieved and never thought about finding that perfect color again. Yet, my brain took over and for the next two weeks, I somehow noticed 10 gray cars.
The point of the story is that you’ll always find more of what you search for in life, and your brain is very helpful in noticing things you want to pay attention to and looking for evidence to support what you already believe. This action in our brain is called confirmation bias, and it relates to our personal relationships as well.
If you believe people are untrustworthy, you’ll begin to interpret actions and behaviors of those around you to fit that belief. For example, if someone forgets a minor detail in a conversation, it’ll be interpreted as proof that this person is untrustworthy. You’ll begin to see that same untrustworthy pattern in others as well. Closer to home, if you are frustrated and believe your marriage isn’t working, your brain will look for evidence and interpret the small actions and behaviors as ‘proof’ that your marriage is simply hopeless.
There is good news, though! Your brain works the same way in finding the positives in our lives. The more you look for things to be grateful for in life, the more easily you will find them. With regard to your partner, the more you look for things you love, appreciate and treasure about them - the more you’ll find. The more you believe your spouse cherishes you, the more evidence you’ll find that proves they really do cherish you!
Once you begin to consciously look for things to be grateful for in your life, your brain will engage to help you even when you’re not consciously looking. It’s about simply making the decision to be alert for the positives and giving thanks for those gifts - this is what starts the process of seeing, hearing, and noticing more gifts all around you.
You may ask, why should I focus on gratitude if I have other issues I need to address? Here are 4 reasons to begin practicing gratitude:
1. Gratitude helps you keep a balanced perspective.
Finding opportunities for gratitude doesn’t mean you pretend hurt, frustrations or issues don’t exist. Experiencing pain, of any kind can act like a whirlpool and suck you deeper and deeper into the pain. Gratitude helps you maintain a sense of balance. Yes, you may feel hurt or frustrated and there are things you’ll need to work through. Gratitude reminds you that you value and appreciate many things in each other, even when you are frustrated. Frustration does not cancel out valuing one another.
When you build a base of appreciation and positive regard, you realize that your partner doesn’t intend to hurt or frustrate you - even if it feels uncaring at the moment. You can assume your spouse probably acted with positive or neutral intent, even though what they did or said had a negative effect. This is a key point, so being upset isn’t about your spouse not loving you or trying to make you personally miserable. They simply did something, usually, without thinking, that had a negative effect. At worst, they may have acted in a way to protect themselves when they felt hurt or frustrated.
When you create a climate of appreciation, underneath your hurt, you are secure in the love you share. That makes it much easier to work through those frustrations and upsets in a positive way.
2. Gratitude makes you a happier person.
Numerous research studies have been done over the years that consistently show proof that people who actively look for things to be grateful for report increased personal happiness (Emmons and McCullough, 2003, Wood et al, 2010). It’s simple - when we are happy, we feel more alive and have more emotional, and sometimes physical energy. We even radiate more joy.
3. Expressing gratitude increases relationship satisfaction.
Studies show that not only does expressing gratitude make you both feel happier together, they also found that when you express gratitude directly to your spouse, their positive behaviors usually increase as well. Other studies found similar findings in work situations. People respond positively when they feel appreciated and that adds to a positive connection (Algoe et al, 2003).
We all long for people, especially those we love, to notice the best in us. When someone notices little things we do, acknowledges our efforts, appreciates us, we feel seen and valued for who we are in spite of our inevitable mistakes and imperfections. We, therefore, desire to express more of our best self.
Amie Gordon and Christopher Oveis (2012) found that when couples express gratitude, they feel closer to their partner and engage in more behaviors to strengthen the connection and maintain the relationship. They try more to meet the needs of their spouse. They increase their effort to better resolve conflicts. And when one spouse receives appreciation, they notice more things to appreciate in their partner. Both partners feel more appreciated and treasured overall. Conversely, one of the top reasons for divorce people report is NOT feeling valued and appreciated.
4. Expressing appreciation creates more emotional safety in relationships.
By finding and expressing appreciation, you’ll create a positive energy based relationship that enhances emotional safety and security. You feel treasured, you treasure your connection and your life together and you want to be together to enjoy each other more. Dr. John Gottman is often quoted about happy, lasting marriages having a ratio of 5 positive interactions to every one negative interaction. But that is not quite accurate. The 5:1 ratio is when a couple is experiencing some conflict! His research showed that in happy, lasting marriages, the ratio was 20 positives to one negative in everyday life. (Dollard, 2017) Expressing acknowledgment and gratitude is a simple way to add more positive interactions and nurture your relationship.
So, how can you get started to increase your gratitude today?
Keep a gratitude journal - there are apps for it too!
Make it a habit to write a few sentences of something you’re grateful for during the day. Look for the simple things — a beautiful day, a delicious meal, a phone call from a friend, a flower that bloomed, a spontaneous hug from your child. Look for things you tend to take for granted, like your spouse doing the laundry and folding your socks, your spouse working hard every day to provide for his/her family.
On challenging days, when it’s hard to find anything for which to be grateful, remind yourself to be grateful for a roof over your head, running water, food to eat, you can see and walk.
If you don’t have time to write down the things for which to be grateful during the day, you can easily review them before you fall asleep in your comfy bed.
My partner and I pray together before we go to bed and most of it is saying ‘thank you’ for various small things in that day. I am convinced it adds to my general happiness and helps me on the hard days.
Consciously look for positive qualities, strengths, values and actions in your spouse.
Don’t limit your gratitude to just things your spouse does for you. Seek out things to be grateful for in who your spouse is as a person. You might think of a recent way they showed their determination, compassion or thoughtfulness toward you or someone else.
You might find it helpful to make a list of those qualities, core values, spouse something value in your spouse and those you were attracted to originally. Then you can think about recent examples. Appreciate something about your partner’s physical appearance or something about how he or she makes love.
Look for things you are grateful for in your life together as a couple, or a family.
What do you love and appreciate about being a couple or a family? Is it the waking up each morning and having your coffee made for you and brought to you in your office? Is it the way your partner cares for and loves on your children? Is it the way you support each other? There are so many ways we can find gratitude in our partner for the lives we’ve created together. We simply need to look.
Tell your partner that you’re grateful - tell them how, why, when and more.
It’s not enough to notice things you appreciate and keep them to yourself. Tell your spouse something you are grateful for and why.
While saying "thanks honey" is positive, make an effort to sometimes say more about why you appreciate something.
How did that help you?
What did their action or words communicate to you that made you feel grateful or even touched your heart?
Why do you appreciate the way they show compassion to others or show determination?
If it feels awkward at first to sit down and tell your spouse face to face, try the following:
Send an appreciation in a text or an email.
Leave a voicemail.
Leave a little note on their pillow.
Leave a little note on their car dashboard.
In fact, even if you are already comfortable expressing appreciation face to face, it’s good to use a variety of ways to express your gratitude.
If you have learned the Imago dialogue or safe conversations, you can use the structure to sit down face to face, heart to heart and soul to soul to fully express an appreciation.
Start today. Make a commitment for 3 months to consciously cultivate an attitude of gratitude in yourself and your marriage. You will likely find yourself happier and feeling more connected to those you love.
If you're ready to bring more gratitude into your life and into your relationships, we're here to help. Check out our workshops, therapists and facilitators. We have online therapy and workshops right now too!
This blog post was written by Dawn Lipthrott, LCSW.
Dawn is a marriage and relationship counselor/coach, marriage workshop presenter, and a licensed psychotherapist with over 25 years experience working exclusively with couples and individuals for marriage and relationship counseling. Prior to private practice, she worked with individuals, families, and groups from a wide background. Dawn firmly believes that lives, groups, societies and the world as a whole are made up of relationship networks. Marriage or committed partnership can be one of the most satisfying and enriching — and can be one of the most painful at times.
Even the best relationships have conflict. However, sometimes the loving connection is gradually replaced by tension, disconnection, pain and loneliness. Small conflicts can spiral into hurtful arguments or shutting down and can lead to the destruction of the relationship.
But with information and tools, and a re-building of safe connection, conflict can open doors that help both people move into deeper love and advance on their road to wholeness as passionate partners, and allies. They can build or recapture that 'unshakeable sense of US' that they can rely on and feel safe in. More often than not, couples can take steps they need to build the marriage or relationship they both most want.
Dollard, Christopher (2017) Invest in Your Relationship: The Emotional Bank. https://www.gottman.com/blog/invest-relationship-emotional-bank-account
Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personalityand Social Psychology, 84 (2), 377-389 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
Gordon AM1, Impett EA, Kogan A, Oveis C, Keltner D. (2012). To have and to hold: gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. J Pers Soc Psychol.2012 Aug;103(2):257-74. doi: 10.1037/a0028723. Epub 2012 May 28.
Wood, Alex M., Froh, Jeffrey J. and Geraghty, Adam W.A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, pp. 1-16.