In my household, I’m responsible for making dinner most nights. My husband works late, so I usually keep a plate of whatever the kids and I had and heat it up for him when he gets home. He unfailingly thanks me and compliments the meal, even if it’s leftover chicken nuggets and a can of lentil soup.
I’ve never thought that much about this until recently, when I started taking an evening class. Now he makes dinner and saves me a plate, and I’m sorry to say that I forgot to thank him the first few times.
This got me thinking about gratitude in general. I’ve had long-term relationships in the past in which I didn’t really feel grateful about what my partner was doing, because they were doing so little to contribute to the household in the first place. It was hard to gin up some gratitude for the little they were doing—shirkers, basically. My husband is very can-do, both at work and at home, which is great, but sometimes I think, Why say thank you for something he should be doing, like cleaning, child care, or working hard? But he—who’s been in some bad relationships himself—always thanks me for the work I do, whether it’s vacuuming or an extra freelance job or a nice dinner. These are all things I “should” be doing too, as a mother and the other adult in the family. He doesn’t need to thank me, exactly, but he does anyway.
It turns out that expressing gratitude is, in fact, really important for a good marriage. A new study out of the University of Georgia, published in the Journal of Personal Relationships, shows that feeling appreciated and valued by your spouse is critical for a strong partnership.
Researchers surveyed 468 married couples about their communication, their finances, and their expressions of gratitude. They found that the expressions of gratitude were the best predictor of marital happiness.
Those expressions can also have a protective effect in conflict. The researchers found, when exploring “demand/withdraw” communication—when one partner demands something, criticizes or nags, and the other one withdraws in response—that feeling appreciated can protect against those kinds of negative interactions. If you have a solid foundation of both appreciating and feeling appreciated, you won’t immediately fly off the handle when your partner says, “Hey, did you forget to do the grocery shopping?”
The study also found that financial stress affected marriages negatively—no one needed a study to know that—but that voicing appreciation can mitigate the stress of navigating the money troubles. According to a UGA press release:
“‘When couples are stressed about making ends meet, they are more likely to engage in negative ways—they are more critical of each other and defensive, and they can even stop engaging or withdraw from each other, which can then lead to lower marital quality,’ [co-author Ted] Futris said.
“Gratitude, however, can interrupt this cycle and help couples overcome negative communication patterns in their relationship, patterns that may be a result of current stressors they are experiencing.”
I understand that expressing appreciation is important for everyone to feel good, but I’d wager that has to start with a partner who’s worth appreciating. In other words, forcing yourself to say “thank you” to a partner who took out the trash—but otherwise doesn’t do diddly-squat around the house—isn’t going to improve your marriage. What will improve your marriage is being married to someone who pulls their weight, and then some, and recognizes that you do the same.
This means I need to shape up a bit on the thank-you front. Sure, he should make dinner for me, just as I do for him. But the implicit in that “thank you” is the understanding that we recognize the big things and the small things that we do to make each other’s lives a little easier, that we’re a team, and that we care about each other’s well-being. I am grateful for that. I should say it.