If you tend to stop whatever you’re doing to express dismay over something left undone or something done improperly, you’re not alone. After all, humans are problem-solvers by nature. If we’re faced with a situation that needs fixing, we’re likely to speak up about it.
“Didn’t I ask you to fix that lock last week? I got locked out when I went outside to take the trash out!”
“I thought you said you were staying on top of the bills. We got two past-due notices today!”
“If you’re not going to make the call to get us an appointment, at least say so so that I can do it.”
Although the details will vary, chances are you’ve been at the receiving and delivering end of similar statements of frustration. Life is complicated and constantly moving. It’s impossible to get everything done perfectly, no matter how we might try. So there will be times when we drop the ball or when we have to pitch in to fix a problem exacerbated by our partner missing something. And those times are the ones that tend to linger in our consciousness more than the smooth, uneventful times. (The squeaky wheel gets the grease, even within our own minds.)
Not only do we tend to remember crisis moments more vividly than non-crisis moments, but we also tend to be vigilant when it comes to preventing those crises, so we’re actively anticipating and looking for potholes in the road of life, even when we’re driving on a perfectly smooth stretch of pavement.
All this is not said for you to feel resigned to the pattern of looking out for the brambles so intently that you never manage to smell the roses. Quite the contrary—when you bring this pattern to your awareness, you can understand why it’s so common. That understanding, coupled with kindness to yourself, can sow the seeds of self-improvement and relationship improvement.
Words of thanks: Showing gratitude isn’t just for the big moments
Research has consistently shown that people who take the time to feel grateful for the “little” things in their lives (even when they’re facing major struggles) report a greater degree of happiness than people who solely focus on resolving problems when they arise. If a mindset of being thankful is good for an individual, it stands to reason that it is good for a couple. Quite often, love and gratitude go hand-in-hand.
If you start noticing all the things you’re grateful to your partner for, and if you communicate those things to him/her, you both benefit.
But how can we make showing gratitude a habit when we’re so immersed in living a fast-paced life that demands we put out fire after fire?
Incorporating ongoing appreciation into your relationship doesn’t require a major upheaval of your life…but, as with anything worth doing, it takes consistency. Small steps are great; the key is to continue taking those little steps, day after day.
Being Thankful: 5 Tips for Expressing Appreciation in Your Relationship
1) Notice the good
Even if you feel overwhelmed with all that you have to do (and overwhelmed with how much is left undone), there are most likely things you are grateful for regarding your life with your partner. The problem is that the demands of life are noisy and persistent and don’t allow you to hear the appreciation you might be feeling underneath, even if it is appreciation for a tiny thing that might seem inconsequential in the face of all the “problems” clamoring for attention. (And keep in mind that noticing the good does not mean denying the trouble spots in life or your relationship. Denial is never a beneficial approach to intimate relationships.)
With practice, you can quiet the voice that reminds you of what hasn’t gone right and can listen for the softer voice that tells you what already is right. (Keeping detailed “to-do” lists can help here; making lists can get the chores out of your head, so to speak, which keeps the chores or issues in place for dealing with later. This allows you to unclutter your mind so you can be more grateful for the things that run smoothly.) And then you can notice what’s working well between you and your partner, and can notice how your partner contributes to that.
2) Feel the gratitude
You can’t express gratitude if you’re not feeling it (well, you can, but it won’t be true gratitude, and so it won’t feel good to you or your partner). Too many people try to force themselves into being grateful, and the risk of that is you can end up resenting yourself and your partner down the road. Telling yourself you’re grateful if you’re not is nothing more than gratitude lip-service.
Allow the noticing (which is an intellectual activity) to drop down to feeling (which is experiential, and sometimes even beyond words). If you’re not feeling it, don’t force yourself or beat yourself up for that. Go back to noticing when you’re ready and try again at a later time.
3) Say it
Noticing and feeling appreciation are beneficial for you, but you want to go further and have your marriage or relationship benefit, too. So you need to go from expressing the gratitude within yourself to expressing it to your partner. And this next point can’t be stressed enough: don’t wait for a major event to occur to tell your partner you appreciate something that s/he has done. Research shows that regular, consistent mentions of gratitude do more for a couple’s closeness and mutual good will than infrequent ones.
Your partner will not tire of hearing you say, “I appreciated when you ________,” so don’t worry about the expression of gratitude losing its luster.
4) Write it
In addition to giving voice to the moments when you feel appreciation for something helpful your spouse or partner did for you (or even for your partner in general, or some facet of him/her that you especially love), sending words of thanks via notes of gratitude are wonderful ways to cement this mindset in your life. Texts, emails, notes, surprise cards sent to his/her place of work show your partner that you really mean what you say. These don’t need to be epic tomes or over-the-top…for instance something as simple yet specific as this would be super: Thank you for being so supportive the other night after my bad day at work—I appreciate how you took care of dinner and getting the kids to bed so that I could de-stress.
Further, the act of writing something stimulates your brain so that you might come up with more to appreciate than you would’ve if you’d only spoken your thoughts.
And the odds are, your partner will very much appreciate your appreciation too!
This next point is a challenging one for many, but it is important for an authentic gratitude mindset to take hold in your marriage or relationship. And that is: don’t express gratitude with the expectation that your partner must reciprocate. If you only give appreciation because you’re angling to get some from him/her, then in essence you’re holding a healthy mindset hostage to something beyond your control.
You can’t control whether your partner expresses gratitude to you (though these types of things tend to be contagious, so it’s likely you’ll see some positive shifting along these lines). You can only control how you behave in the relationship (but your behavior can’t help but impact the union overall). Focus on how you’re feeling and what feels right to you, not on how you want your partner to behave in response.
So if you’re feeling good about the “attitude of gratitude,” go ahead and repeat the noticing, feeling, saying, writing that we discussed above, but first make sure that your only motive is to notice what’s already working in your marriage or relationship and sharing that with your mate. If your motive is to get him/her to do the same for you, you’ve got some reassessing to do.
Are you ready to make appreciation a part of your marriage or relationship?
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured [top] image “Thank You! Notebook Display” by Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)