More on Gratitude and Lasting Relationships

This is the third time I have blogged about gratitude. You can see the first one here and the second one here. You may be thinking, sheesh this guy must believe that expressing gratitude is really important.  I do. In each of the posts I have said something different about the impact of gratitude.  One consistent theme, though, is that expressing gratitude is a remarkably easy way to help relationships last.

About four or five years ago, I had an experience that I still think about today.  You may be thinking that if it had such a big influence on me I ought to remember exactly when it was.  True, but I don’t.  I was visiting some friends in Columbus, OH.  They had two other friends, Tom and David, over for dinner while I was visiting.  Tom and David were friends and colleagues at work—not partners in an intimate relationship.  They were both in their early-30s. And I think they were both Canadian, which goes a long way to explaining how they treated each other because Canadians are very polite people.

It wasn’t that they were just polite to each other.  Rather, they expressed their gratitude toward each other more often than I have ever seen two men do.  Even the smallest action, like passing the bread at dinner, was received with a sincere thank you.  Now, I am Canadian too and so generally I’m very polite.  But watching Tom and David made me feel like a rude slug.

I think about this experience every time I see a couple that does not typically express gratitude—like the husband who does not thank his wife for making a nice dinner or the wife who does not tell her husband how much she appreciates that he picked up his dirty socks.  (I know…very sexist examples, but you get the point.)  It is a very discouraging sign for the health of a relationship. So often I think how much better off the couple would be by exchanging a simple, “Thank you,” “I appreciate it,” or even, “How kind of you.”

In a recent article in the journal Psychological Science, Nathaniel Lambert, a psychologist at Florida State University, and his colleagues suggest that gratitude, “…signals to the target that his or her communal actions were both useful to and desired by the expresser. Thus, it validates the target’s actions and encourages the target to repeat or even enhance efforts to be responsive to the partner; such efforts, in turn, should please the partner (increasing relationship satisfaction) and enhance the communal strength of the relationship” (p. 5).

That is, saying thank you is more than just a nice thing to do.  It communicates to your partner that they did the right thing and implies that you would like it if they did it again.  This acknowledgement is especially useful for new couples that are still trying to figure out each other’s likes and dislikes, but it is useful for all couples. How often have you heard someone lament “I just don’t know what she wants,” or “I don’t know how to make him happy.”  Clear expressions of gratitude, then, provide useful information to your partner on ways to make you happy.

Now it may seem obvious that expressing gratitude to your partner will help them feel more appreciated and make them generally more cheerful towards you. However, expressing gratitude also provides us with more intangible benefits. The main point of the Lambert article is, in fact, that expressing gratitude not only makes your partner feel more content with your relationship, but it will also make you feel more fulfilled.

Lambert and his colleagues suggest that expressing gratitude fosters a greater sense that we are participating in a communal relationship. By communal, I mean that each person is concerned for the welfare of their partner—perhaps even more so than with their own welfare.  They don’t do a favor only after having received a favor.  In fact, they may do favor after favor, without thought of repayment, because they feel a sense of responsibility to care for their partner. When you express gratitude toward your partner for washing the dishes (even though it was your turn), you acknowledge their actions and therefore recognize that you are in the kind of relationship where people do nice things for each other—not because they are required or expected to, but simply because they want to.

One of the great things about expressing gratitude is that doing so is entirely free.  Unfortunately, many people have lost the habit of saying thank you.  Fortunately, with very little effort, and just a little practice, two little words can help to create a lasting sense of unity and contentment.

In case you are interested…..

Lambert, N. M., Clark, M. S., Durtschi, J., Fincham, F. D., & Graham, S. M. (2010). Benefits of expressing gratitude: Expressing gratitude to a partner changes one’s view of the relationship.  Psychological Science, 21, 574-580.

 

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

Future Consequences and Lasting Relationships, Part 2

Last week, I suggested that one of the most important things in life is figuring out how to balance those times when we want to live for the moment and those times when we should plan for the future. 
 
I said that there are two aspects that turn these decisions into real dilemmas. The first is that there is no hard and fast rule. That is, sometimes we should be planning for the future and other times we should be living for the moment. But knowing which is which is often very difficult.
 
The second is that when we are faced with a dilemma of this nature, it is not just between an immediate consequence and a distant one.  Immediate consequences tend to be more certain and more concrete.  That is, if I eat a piece of chocolate cake I am sure to enjoy it and I know how good it will be.  But many factors will influence whether I suffer from heart disease and even if I do it is impossible to know what that will feel like or what the outcome will be.  We can hardly fault people for choosing the favorable option when it is more immediate and more certain.
 
I have been thinking about the importance of considering future consequences for almost twenty years now.  I published the first paper on it in 1994 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  My sense has always been that we can divide people into two categories—those who tend to think about future consequences in deciding how to act and those who tend to be more focused on the immediate.  You probably have a good sense of which type of person you are, and the important thing to note is that there is no right or wrong way to be.  At the end of this post you will find the Consideration of Future Consequences (CFC) Scale.  Answer the 14 questions to see how you score. 
 
Even though I have not directly addressed the possible influence of CFC in relationships you can probably see how it might be relevant.  Relationship difficulties tend to arise in relationships, for instance, when one partner is a spender and the other a saver, or when one partner wants to party and the other wants to start a family.  I am not saying that both partners have to be high or low in CFC, but it is essential that each partner understands the tendencies the other has to favor immediate or distant consequences.  Successful relationships require you to consider your partner’s needs and desires and keeping in mind your partner’s tendencies to think in terms of now or later will help you predict how they are likely to think or act in a given situation.
 
The Consideration of Future Consequences-14 Scale
 
For each of the statements shown, please indicate whether or not the statement is characteristic of you.  If the statement is extremely uncharacteristic of you (not at all like you) please respond with a “1” in the space at the beginning of the statement; if the statement is extremely characteristic of you (very much like you) please respond with a “7.”  And, of course, use the numbers in the middle if you fall between the extremes.
1. ___ I consider how things might be in the future, and try to influence those things with my day to day behavior.
 
2. ___ Often I engage in a particular behavior in order to achieve outcomes that may not result for many years.
 
3. ___ I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring the future will take care of itself.
 
4. ___ My behavior is only influenced by the immediate (i.e., a matter of days or weeks) outcomes of my actions.
 
5. ___ My convenience is a big factor in the decisions I make or the actions I take.
 
6. ___ I am willing to sacrifice my immediate happiness or well-being in order to achieve future outcomes.
 
7. ___ I think it is important to take warnings about negative outcomes seriously even if the negative outcome will not occur for many years.
 
8. ___ I think it is more important to perform a behavior with important distant consequences than a behavior with less important immediate consequences.
 
9. ___ I generally ignore warnings about possible future problems because I think the problems will be resolved before they reach crisis level.
 
10. ___ I think that sacrificing now is usually unnecessary since future outcomes can be dealt with at a later time.
 
11. ___ I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring that I will take care of future problems that may occur at a later date.
 
12. ___ Since my day to day work has specific outcomes, it is more important to me than behavior that has distant outcomes.
 
13. ___ When I make a decision, I think about how it might affect me in the future.
 
14. ___ My behavior is generally influenced by future consequences.
 
 
Scoring the Scale:
 
For items 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12 take each score and subtract it from 8.  So if you originally answered Item 1 with a 7, cross out the 7 and replace it with a 1 (8-7=1). Then add up these seven new numbers along with your original responses to the other seven items (1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14) to arrive at one overall score.
 
Your score can range from 14 to 98. The middle of the scale would be a total score of 56.  If your score is higher than 56 then you tend to consider future consequences.  And of course the closer you are to 98 (the highest possible score) the stronger this tendency is.  Scoring below 56 indicates that you tend to consider immediate consequences to a greater extent and the closer to 14 (the lowest possible score) your score is, the stronger this tendency is.
 
If you have any trouble with this please feel free to email me. I would be happy to help out.
In case you are interested…
 
Joireman, J., Shaffer, M., Balliet, D., & Strathman, A.  (2011).  Promotion orientation explains why future oriented people exercise and eat healthy: Evidence from the two‐factor Consideration of Future Consequences-14 Scale.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1272–1287.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

Future Consequences and Lasting Relationships, Part 1

At times when I meet people who seem to have everything going their way, who appear to have life figured out, who are wise beyond their years, I think there must have been a day at school when the teacher talked about how to be an adult and passed out an instruction manual.  Back then we had a handout for every topic–mimeographed on those old machines that gave each piece of paper that smell that was terrible yet addictive.  And, unfortunately, I was absent that day. In elementary and high school when I was sick, the teacher would usually send work home with a friend of mine and certainly she would have sent the instruction manual home.  Could there be a more important handout? But maybe she was busy that day and forgot, or perhaps it was one of the days C.N. had spent acting out just to rile her up and she was determined to get home and have a drink as quickly as possible.  C.N. used to do things like this:  When we were working on prepositions and he had to use the word “aboard” in a sentence he wrote “A board fell off the roof and hit him in the head.”  And he would sometimes eat gum off the bottom of the desks.

In the time since elementary school I think I have discovered what Chapter 1 in the Life Instruction Manual would be. It is perfectly epitomized in the following very ordinary, daily example: Recently, I had dinner at a restaurant in Columbia called Murry’s (one of my favorite places).  I had a salad.  I wasn’t very active over the winter and I gained a few pounds.  So I was proud of myself for ordering salad.  But less proud when I then ordered raspberry-chocolate cake with white chocolate frosting.  So much for healthy eating.

Every day, in ways large and small, we face dilemmas of this sort—ones with one set of immediate consequences that are relatively positive (mmm…chocolate cake) and another set that are more distant, and more negative (hello obesity and heart disease).  Choosing what to eat is one of the countless number of decisions we make in which we face one set of positive immediate consequences and a separate set of negative distant consequences. Decisions to smoke and engage in unsafe sexual behavior are two others.

Another arena where we face the dilemma between choosing immediate or distant consequences is financial decisions.  Americans have, until recently, had a negative savings rate, meaning we spend more than we earn.  Hmmm……I can buy that 50” flat panel LED TV and have all the guys over to watch Monday Night Football or I can deposit money in my savings account and continue to watch the perfectly acceptable television I have at home.  An average household credit card debt of $13,000 is evidence of how this dilemma is usually resolved.

There are two aspects that turn these decisions into real dilemmas.  First, we can’t always be planning for the future; sometimes we have to enjoy the moment. This might involve spending some money, taking a bit of a chance, or having a little fun.  It was the movie Dead Poet’s Society that brought the term “carpe diem” (seize the day) into popular use.  And authors/songwriters/poets throughout time have written of the importance of acting in the moment.  One of my favorites is the 1967 song Let’s Live for Today by The Grass Roots.  One lyric sums up their perspective: Let others plan their future, I’m busy loving you. [The second aspect I will talk about next week.]

So which kind of person are you?  Do you live for the moment or plan for the future?  Do you act impulsively or consider future consequences? For some people the answer is “It depends.” Some people save money for retirement but eat like there is no tomorrow.

It may sound like I am implying that one approach is better than the other.  I’m not.  Each of us needs to decide for ourselves how we live our lives.  I am only advocating being aware and conscious of our personal style.  And I believe that understanding how we resolve the everyday dilemma between immediate and distant consequences is part of living the kind of examined life that Socrates described.

Next week I will describe a way to help you measure your decision style, and also spend some time relating this idea to lasting relationships.  I mean, after all, the site is called HelpingRelationshipsLast.com for a reason.

In case you are interested…..

Strathman, A., Gleicher, F., Boninger,  D.  S., & Edwards, C. S. (1994).  The consideration of future consequences: Weighing immediate and distant outcomes of behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 742-752.

 

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

Real and Ideal Relationships, Part 2

In last week’s post I talked about the benefits of seeing our real partner as similar to our ideal partner.  I ended the post with the example where Susan’s ideal partner would score an 8 on a measure of kind and affectionate but her actual partner, David, scores about a 4.  So what is Susan to do?  How can she move the 4 and the 8 closer together? Does she stick with her ideal and work to see David as more kind and affectionate than she had originally?  Or does she, perhaps, change what she thinks of as ideal, so that a 4 isn’t as far from ideal as it once was?  As you probably guessed, she is likely to do both.

Behaviors that we might think of as kind or affectionate (and this is true for any characteristic) are often open to interpretation.  If David brings you breakfast in bed how kind and affectionate of an act is that?  You might decide that because he was already getting himself breakfast it wasn’t much of an effort to bring something for you too.  Or you might be a little more kind and affectionate yourself and decide that it was a very nice thing for David to do.  If you do this, your rating of David’s kindness is likely to increase just a little. And if you take each opportunity to give David the benefit of the doubt, then slowly but surely your perception of his kindness is likely to increase. If you have read other blog posts you know that I am interested in helping relationships last in the real world.  And in the real world, if David isn’t ever kind or affectionate then no amount of positive interpretation is going to allow you see him that way.  He has to participate in this process too.

The second approach is to revise your estimate of how kind and affectionate your ideal partner would be.  If we just think hypothetically about how kind and affectionate we would want our partner to be most of us would say extremely kind and affectionate.  But once we are thinking of a specific partner we begin to balance this one characteristic against their other positive qualities.  Perhaps David is a good provider and is great with children.  And if he has a great sense of humor then maybe it isn’t necessary for him to be any more kind and affectionate than he already is.  Our view of what’s ideal, then, has moved closer to where David is.  We started at a 4 and an 8 and maybe after a little bit of work we meet in the middle at 6.  David is more affectionate than you thought he was and being affectionate isn’t as important as you thought it was and, abracadabra (poof!), your ideal is now your actual  (J I think you know I don’t mean it will be this easy, but you don’t get many opportunities to use the word abracadabra).

No one thinks marriage is all fun and games.  Or if they do they haven’t been married for long.  When people say that marriage is work, they are referring to this kind of effort.  Murray and her colleagues offer a quote by Francis Herbert Hedge that describes this process perfectly: What we need most is not so much to realize the ideal as to idealize the real.  And my guess is that even Mr. Hedge realized that sometimes this takes work.  But as we often say here, it is work that is noble and rewarding.

 

In case you are interested…

Murray, S. L., Griffin, D. W., Derrick, J. L., Harris, B., Aloni, M., & Leder, S.  (2011). Tempting Fate or Inviting Happiness? Unrealistic Idealization Prevents the Decline of Marital Satisfaction.  Psychological Science, 22, 619-626.

 

 

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

Real and Ideal in Lasting Relationships

Spend a minute doing the following: generate an image in your mind of your ideal self. If you are reading this sentence right after the previous one, wait. Take just 30 seconds to think of your ideal self. Consider personality. Do you wish you were kinder, more generous, or more patient?  How about physically? Taller? Shorter? In better health? What about socially? Do you wish you had a few more friends or were a better friend to those you have?

When I consider my ideal self I imagine a person who is more patient, a little less socially awkward, and in better physical shape. Oh, and someone who is taller and plays professional hockey. 🙂  The smiley face is meant to indicate that, yes, I do know these last two things are unrealistic.  (But a guy can dream can’t he?)

Psychologists tell us that, as long as the discrepancy between our actual and our ideal is not too large, making comparisons can be motivating.  When we see a reasonable chance of moving closer to our ideal self we can feel motivated to make a change to close the gap.  And even if we don’t get all the way to our ideal self, making even some progress can be very satisfying.  Not surprisingly, considering ideal selves that are unrealistically out of reach for us can be distressing.

Comparing our own actual and ideal selves is one thing.  What happens when we compare the actual and ideals for our partner?  The first thing that comes to mind is concern that if we make frequent comparisons we will inevitably find that the actual falls short of the ideal, and be disillusioned.  And many would caution against expecting the actual to match the ideal.  Unrealistic expectations have a strong influence on our ultimate evaluations of many things, including our partner and relationship.

In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, Sandra Murray and her colleagues took a slightly different approach to the relationship between actual and ideal partners.  They asked 222 couples to describe themselves, their partner, and their ideal partner on a large set of characteristics seven times over a three-year period.  By studying the couples over such a long period of time they were able to look at how marital satisfaction changed over time.  They were interested in examining the benefits of seeing a partner as being close to the ideal image of a partner.

Before we talk about what they found, we have to address one discouraging fact.  And there is enough data on this to call it a fact.  If you measure marital satisfaction right after marriage, and continue to measure it over the next several years there is a very clear pattern, one that may explain why there are so many sites on the internet devoted to helping relationships succeed: the natural course of marital satisfaction is to decline over time.  If we were to draw a graph it would look something like this:

Marital Satisfaction

What Murray and her colleagues found was that when a person thinks their partner is similar to the image of their ideal partner, the decline in satisfaction is less than if they think their partner is far from ideal.

Well sure, you might be thinking, anyone who is married to their ideal partner is likely to be pretty satisfied.  That’s true.  But Murray and her colleagues weren’t studying realistic idealization (that is, thinking a partner is ideal when they really are).  They were studying unrealistic idealization—coming to see your partner as similar to your ideal partner, even when he really isn’t.  Let’s take an example. Remember, they asked partners to rate themselves, their partner and their ideal partner on many dimensions, like witty and humorous, kind and affectionate, understanding, and warm, on a scale that went from 0 to 8. If David rates himself as a 4 on the kind and affectionate measure (hmmm…not very kind and affectionate I’m afraid) but his wife Susan rates him as an 8, we might see this as unrealistically seeing David as ideal because not even David himself thinks he is nearly that kind and affectionate.

OK, our ideal partner would score an 8 on a measure of kind and affectionate.  Our actual partner scores about 4.  But there is clear value in seeing your partner as resembling your ideal—the more we do it the longer we remain satisfied with our marriage.  So, how do we do it?  How do we move the 4 and the 8 closer together? Do we stick with our ideal and work to see David as more kind and affectionate than we had originally thought?  Or do we perhaps change what we think of as ideal, so that a 4 isn’t as far from ideal as it once was?  As you probably guessed, we do both.

In Part 2 of this blog post, we will talk in more detail about how this happens. But the solution is rarely to end a relationship in pursuit of someone who is closer to our ideal. Next week we are going to suggest that closing the gap between real and ideal is a big part of loving the one you’re with.

 

In case you are interested…

Murray, S. L., Griffin, D. W., Derrick, J. L., Harris, B., Aloni, M., & Leder, S.  (2011). Tempting Fate or Inviting Happiness? Unrealistic Idealization Prevents the Decline of Marital Satisfaction.  Psychological Science, 22, 619-626.

 

 

 

 

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.

Moodism and Lasting Relationships

This is a little break from the standard blog post, to talk about Moodism, a simple idea with great potential to help relationships last.  Moodism is the brainchild of my friend Jay Geier.  You can go to moodism.com to find out what Moodism is all about.

The goal of Moodism is to provide individuals with skills enabling them to be more effective and efficient in managing their emotions.  Jay believes that often we are not in the right mood to maximize our chances of success in a particular situation. As an easy example, imagine how different you would want your mood to be when you are a) beginning a business meeting with a difficult client versus b) taking your family to the zoo.

Before we can decide if we are in the “right” mood for a situation, where the right mood is the one that will give us the best chance for success, we have to know what mood we’re in. And years of research in psychology has demonstrated that we are not often conscious of our internal states.  So Moodism starts with the process of taking our emotional temperature, something Jay suggests we get in the habit of doing every morning when we wake up. Further, we should take our temperature throughout the day, as we go from situation to situation.

Instead of letting our mood control us, we can manage and control our moods so we put unhelpful moods behind us and generate moods that allow us to be successful. Jay calls the process of changing our mood moodification. We might want to change from the cheerful mood we gained from talking with our children to a tough-minded mood for our upcoming business meeting. Moodism is about intentionally changing our mood so we are in the right mood for the situation.

Finally, Jay realizes how much we impact others and others impact us.  So he describes the process of reading others’ moods and “righting” them.  That is, helping others undergo moodification so they can use their moods to help them be successful.

OK, so you came here to learn something about lasting relationships and, instead, got an earful about changing moods.  But I hope you can see how being a moodist might impact lasting relationships.  Two months ago, my blog post was about stress resilience in lasting relationships. In that post I described situations in which stressful events can spill-over, threatening the quality of our relationship. Moodists who take their emotional temperature to ensure they are in the right mood for every situation can eliminate the spill-over of a negative mood.  Doing so can prevent stressful business meetings from turning into stressful dinners with our family.

Check out moodism.com and see if it is something that might help your relationship last.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.