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.