Gratitude – It does a relationship good!

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” ― Marcel Proust

“She never appreciates all the things I do”. “He just seems to take me for granted”. Sound familiar? You wouldn’t be alone if these sentiments ring true for you. One of the most common complaints I hear from clients about their relationships is that they don’t feel appreciated.

Relationship auto-pilot

It’s difficult right? We get into a routine and go into auto-pilot. And auto-pilot works very well to get all the competing demands of life met. Imagine if the Captain and Co-Pilot of an airplane had to discuss who is going to do every single task, every single time they flew? That probably wouldn’t work out so great.

But what can happen in our relationships when everything is running on auto-pilot is that we forget to stop and notice that there is a co-pilot on our journey with us. Often the only time we notice is when there is a glitch in the system and someone drops the ball. Many of us are much quicker to point out when our partner has failed in some expectation we have of them, than we are to stop and express appreciation for those ways that our partners contribute to our daily life.

Gratitude—good for them and good for you

And yet, according to a group of researchers from Florida State University, expressing appreciation, even for everyday things, can have a pretty big impact on your relationship. They conducted a series of studies investigating the link between expressions of gratitude and positive feelings (specifically “communal strength”) evidenced in couples. Not surprisingly, they found that individuals who felt more positively about their relationship expressed more gratitude towards their partners. That seems like a no-brainer—it’s pretty easy to tell our partners how much we appreciate them when we are feeling all lovey-dovey towards them. However, what was more interesting was that they also found that when partners expressed gratitude, that increased positive feelings about the relationship for the person who was expressing the gratitude. In other words, when we express gratitude it ends up making us feel more positively about our relationships. So it may be that when you’re feeling down on your relationship or frustrated with your partner, that may be the best time to express appreciation.

And all this might also be relevant if you’re spending the coming holiday season with family. The positive impacts of expressing gratitude seem to extend beyond just partners/spouses. When we express gratitude for friends and family, that also results in us feeling more positively about those relationships. So, if you’re planning on making the big trip out to visit a family that can be “challenging” at times (not that I’m saying that ever happens to you of course!), maybe consider intentionally expressing appreciation to irritating Aunt Edna or grumpy Brother Bill. You may end up feeling more positively about those relationships as a result.

And in the midst of it all, see if you can disengage the autopilot for a bit and take some time to appreciate that cherished co-pilot you have there by your side. They will likely appreciate it and, if the researchers at Florida State are right, it may also do your heart some good.

Home for the holidays—Tips for surviving the holidays with relationships intact.

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

                          — Dr. Seuss

The winter holidays are quickly approaching. For many, it’s a time of celebration and excitement. And, for many, it’s also a time of stress and pressure that can take a toll on us and our relationships. There’s party schedules to be juggled, travel plans to be made, gift lists to be fulfilled, meals to be planned, budgets to be watched, and family visits to be navigated. Sometimes “Home for the holidays” isn’t quite the Rockwellesque scene we might hope for. And if you happen to live in a place like where we are, here in the Pacific Northwest, at this time of the year you may become acutely reminded that all the luscious green nature we so cherish here does come at a cost, a very wet and dreary cost. None of this makes getting through the holidays any easier.  And often it’s our relationships that take brunt of all this holiday stress.

So it’s no wonder that the holidays can prove to be a difficult time for our relationships. Many of us just try to survive the holidays with our relationships intact. However, what if it were possible for our relationships to not just “survive” this stressful time of the year, but to actually grow and deepen? What would it be like if we put at least as much thought into how we are going to nurture our relationships during this time of the year as we do figuring out what gifts to get little Joey?

For those who are in committed relationships, or even if you’re just starting a new dating relationship, here are a few tips for helping to grow and strengthen your relationship even during this busy time of the year.

  1. Practice gratitude for each other—Many traditions this time of year involve doing something every day in anticipation of the big holiday. Whether that be singing Ma’oz Tzur every night, opening the Advent calendar, or lighting the Diwali candles, setting aside time each day for rituals can be a meaningful part of the season. How about  creating your own ritual of sharing your gratitude for your loved one each day. Choose a time each day where you and your loved one take a few moments to share one thing you truly appreciate about your partner. See if you can focus on qualities you appreciate in your loved one, not just things they do.
  2. Make time for each other—This one seems pretty basic, I know, but this can be an especially busy time of the year and your relationship can get lost in the shuffle. Be sure you also make time to be just with each other, away from kids, coworkers, in-laws, and definitely the heaving masses at the mall. Carving out a bit of quality time to reconnect with a partner can be especially important if you’re traveling or visiting family over the holidays. When you’re visiting the family, make time to go out for a walk alone with your partner or sit on the porch having a cup of tea together away from the hustle and bustle of the family gathering. It will be a time to recenter and reconnect.
  3. Have a huddle—There are lots of gatherings at this time of the year, family get-togethers, office parties, social gatherings with friends. These gatherings can be both fun and stressful. Before you and your partner go into one of these gatherings, take just a few moments beforehand to have a brief “huddle” together. You can share if there is anything you are hoping for about the gathering or anything you are concerned about. But most of all, it’s a time to remind each of you that you’re on the same team and that you’re there for each other. That way, when you’re feeling trapped in the corner talking politics with Uncle Bob AGAIN, at least you’ll know that your partner is with you in spirit, even if at the moment he’s across the room running interference between Aunt Betty and Grandma May.

Those are a few ideas to hopefully make this season even more meaningful for you and your loved one.

And if you’re looking for  more resources, I’ve also pulled together some other relationship resources here.

Gratitude — It’s not just for Thanksgiving anymore

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.