“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” –John Milton
It’s a rainy, cold November day. Everyone is home from school and work. Uncle Fred from Umatilla and Aunt Betty from Wenatchee are sitting on the couch arguing about who’s going to win the big game. Is that turkey I smell?…Wait, it must be that special day when I’m supposed to be thankful!
Thanksgiving is a beautiful tradition. It’s one of my favorite holidays. And yet, once the last bit of stuffing has been stuffed and the last antacid has been swallowed, what happens the thankfulness? Like champagne, gratitude seems to have become a “special occasion” sort of thing; we indulge in it when it’s a big event, but it’s not really a part of our everyday life.
I think the same thing can happen in intimate relationships. When we first enter into an intimate relationship, we often go out of our way to do those thoughtful little things for our partners — flowers, cooking a special meal, giving a backrub. And, in the beginning, we are also usually pretty conscious about expressing our gratitude for things, in part, because those things are pretty obvious and easy to notice. But time passes, toilet seats are left up, dog hair accumulates, soccer practices seem to multiply, and amidst that everyday life, we become less aware of the ways in which the people in our lives continue to do loving things for us. And if we’re not aware, it’s tough to be grateful.
And yet, even though there may be less flower-giving and candlelight dinners, it may be the case that if we stop to notice, we’d see our partners doing all sorts of loving things for us and for the relationship — you know, like offering to pick up dinner when they know you’ve had a busy day or taking the dogs for a walk even though it’s raining and it’s technically “your day” to walk them. Noticing and expressing gratitude for these “everyday interpersonal gestures” (that’s psychobabble for thoughtful behaviors) is not only a nice thing to do, it appears to be very important in terms of maintaining connection and satisfaction in long-term relationship.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Universities of California, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles found that expressing gratitude for these “everyday interpersonal gestures” can have profound impact on long-term romantic relationships. When a partner expressed gratitude for something their partner did, both partners reported feeling significantly more connection and deeper satisfaction in the relationship. In another study, researchers found that when they asked people to notice things for which they were grateful, those people reported being 25% happier at the end of 10 weeks than were people who were asked to notice either hassles or just regular events. So, it’s pretty clear that expressing gratitude is beneficial both for the receiver and the one expressing the gratitude.
As I said above, the first step in increasing how grateful you are in your intimate relationship is noticing things for which you are grateful. So, here are a couple of ideas you might want to incorporate into your “everyday-can-be-thanksgiving” tradition:
- Practice a gratitude meditation: There are lots of them available out there on the web. Here is one gratitude meditation that I like (It’s titled – Guided meditation on Kindness & Gratitude and you’ll find it on the middle of the page under “Other meditation practices)It doesn’t have to be anything complex. Just commit to spending a specified amount of time every day in quiet, reflecting on those things for which you are grateful. You could even do this with your partner.
- Start a gratitude listserv: Gather together a bunch of friends and family that would all like to work on this idea of gratitude. Once a week, everyone sends an email to everyone else in the group stating at least one thing for which they are grateful. You may be surprised at how it also deepens your relationships with those in the group.
- Carry it with you: Find a symbol to remind you of your intention to be more grateful. It can be a rock, a leaf, or just an index card that says “gratitude”. Put it in your purse or wallet. Then each time you see it, see if you can notice one thing for which you are grateful right in that moment.
- Make it a ritual: When you are talking about your day with your partner, make sure that among the “My boss is stressing me out” and “What are we going to do about that roof leak” you also tell your partner something you noticed that they did for you or your relationship that you appreciated.
- It’s not all about the things: When you’re focusing on being grateful for your partner, don’t just focus on the things that he/she does for you. Also let your partner know how grateful you are for who they are as a person. Is your partner funny, or thoughtful, or creative, or hard working? When you notice those qualities in your partner that you appreciate, tell him or her about it.
Just the other day, I received an email from a friend and colleague and she closed it with “Have a happy gratitude day.” How lovely! Consider making gratitude a more central part of your relationship every day, not just when you break out the good silverware. You won’t be disappointed in the results.
Author: Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D
Jenna is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who struggle with relationship and intimacy difficulties and with those who have a trauma history. Her research focuses on developing compassion-based interventions targeting stigma, shame, and chronic self-criticism.