“Why should I indulge him like that? He isn’t a child…”
By all accounts, Larissa is stingy with her praise. And she knows this about herself. In her mind, saying “thanks” or “I appreciate what you did” to her husband Daniel is unnecessary. When questioned about the kind of husband Daniel is, Larissa quickly acknowledges that he’s a good husband and a good father, but then she adds, “But he’s only doing what he should be doing.”
Like many of us, Larissa has certain relationship expectations and standards that are non-negotiable. Daniel “should” do certain things as a husband because Larissa expects it. But Larissa is confusing two potentially separate issues:
You can expect certain things from your spouse/partner (you can even demand these things) and you can still appreciate the fact that your expectations are being met.
Let’s look at why Larissa may be shortchanging not only Daniel, but also her marriage.
Love and Gratitude: The Role of Appreciation in Relationships
Whenever we express love and gratitude (or love through gratitude), the following emotional and relationship event is set in motion:
You are recognizing something about another person that you feel positively about, and you are openly expressing this positivity—in essence, you are seeing and highlighting the good in others. While this isn’t always easy to do (especially in long-term relationships), acts of appreciation are something all couples should work toward. An appreciative/grateful mindset allows you to notice and focus on potentially bonding experiences that might otherwise be minimized or go unnoticed.
We all exhibit a wide range of behaviors throughout a particular day, behaviors that may run the gamut from the positive, such as: attentiveness, empathy and kindness, emotional generosity; to the other, less desirable extremes of: moodiness, impatience, defensiveness, self-centeredness; and everything in between. Often, it is our (and our partner’s) less desirable or negative reactions/behaviors that have the potential to take hold and shape the course of our relationship.
Defensive or negative reactions (such as anger, hostility, resentment, bitterness, stonewalling) have a long shelf-life—repetitive, negative relational experiences can leave an emotional residue that is difficult to shake off. Because of this, negative-defensive interactions have the power to steer even the most loving couples off course into hostile waters that can consume their marriage or relationship.
Deliberate displays of appreciation slice pieces of the relationship pie into heightened moments of positivity—this helps to counter the influence of negative interaction dynamics by feeding the positive.
Whenever we are genuinely thankful and we express these feelings, a pathway to greater emotional intimacy is opened. Moments of expressed gratitude (and no moment is too small or insignificant for this to occur) create pathways to deeper emotional intimacy and connection. In other words, acts of appreciation feed the very foundation that is central to successful marriages and relationships.
Relationship Help: Understanding Appreciation Stinginess
Larissa’s appreciation stinginess arose out of fear—she was afraid without even realizing it, and her fears caused her to withhold emotionally (fear tends to constrict our emotional life). For Larissa, gratitude was equated with overly indulging the other—an unnecessary emotional feeding that was child-like in her mind. She feared that to give in this way would open up an emotional neediness in her husband because he would want greater amounts of her expressed appreciation once he experienced it.
Not surprisingly, the roots of Larissa’s withholding of appreciation were established in her family of origin—as a child she repeatedly witnessed her parents withholding emotional affection from each other as an expression of their dissatisfaction. Her parents went through the motions of being husband and wife without any expressions of love or gratitude. To compensate for the deprivation in her marriage, Larissa’s mother turned to her daughter for the affection and support that was lacking in her marriage. As Larissa recalled, “I felt this overwhelming need in her that scared me…the more I gave, the bigger her emotional hunger felt to me.”
Larissa unconsciously transferred her fear of being emotionally consumed by her mother onto Daniel. Her fears took the following form: If she gave to Daniel emotionally through expressions of gratitude, he would require (and demand) increasing amounts of her attention, and she would be totally drained of her emotional resources. So rather than open this emotional Pandora’s box, Larissa kept her gratitude bottled up. As she learned in therapy, these unwarranted fears robbed both her and her husband of the closeness they yearned for from each other.
Help For Couples Action Step
- Do you have any blocks to expressing gratitude or appreciation toward your spouse/partner?
- If you hold back emotionally like Larissa, what family of origin issues might be behind your gratitude deficits?
- Are you ready to make the conscious effort to express appreciation for the small actions your partner does that you are thankful for?
Remember, your displays of appreciation might target an enduring trait your partner or spouse possesses (such as his/her continual capacity for warmth and kindness), or your appreciation might focus on a particular action/behavior that has occurred (he washed the dishes after dinner).
Dr. Rich Nicastro