Flowers, chocolates, and candlelit dinners are sweet. But for relationships that last, expressions of gratitude are a vital component. That’s according to University of Georgia researchers at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Ted Futris, a professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and family life specialist, studies how couples interact and strategies to strengthen relationships. And in a 2015 study, Futris and colleagues explored elements present in resilient marriages, even those that were sometimes fraught with disagreements.
“We found that feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influence how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last,” Futris said.
Feelings of gratitude boosted marital satisfaction, commitment and stability, especially during difficult times. In the study, couples who had mismatched and counterproductive styles of conflict—the kind where one spouse brings up every harm done, while the other goes quiet and withdraws—could withstand that dysfunction with something called “perceived gratitude.”
“As long as they felt appreciated by their spouse, they weren’t thinking about divorce as much,” said lead author Allen Barton, a former UGA doctoral student and now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It goes to show the power of ‘thank you.’”
Here’s how implementing gratitude into marriage could work:
Consider what your partner contributes
If you’re thinking more about what you wish your spouse had done rather than appreciating what they actually do, then it might be because you’re not seeing what your spouse is putting into—or at least is trying to put into—the relationship. It’s natural. People tend to be more aware of what they contribute than what others are doing.
“Start with the recognition that we’re all prone to be a little more self-centered than we might realize,” Barton said. “You have to be aware of it. We’re not as fair and objective as we’d like to think.”
So, acknowledge that your spouse might be trying in ways you don’t see.
Starting a conversation
If you’re unsure whether your spouse feels appreciated, you could try asking.
“Start by telling them the reason,” Barton said. “‘I want you to feel valued in this relationship’ and then simply ask, ‘Is there any area in our relationship where you feel unappreciated?’”
If so, ask how you can change that.
But be careful about the timing of this conversation. It’s best to avoid this conversation when you’re putting your kids to bed or in a period of conflict.
How to say ‘thank you’
When expressing gratitude, you could just say, “thank you.” But other expressions might be more meaningful to your spouse: gifts, cards, or even a midday text message.
Of course, expressing gratitude is only one component of a healthy marriage. And what is a problem for one relationship may never come up in another. The most reliable measure of resilient marriages, Futris said, is how couples interact day after day.
“All couples have disagreements and argue,” Futris said. “And, when couples are stressed, they are likely to have more arguments. What distinguishes the marriages that last from those that don’t is not how often they argue, but how they argue and how they treat each other on a daily basis.”
For couples who want to delve into other strategies to maintain healthy relationships, Futris provides free in-person and online workshops through the Elevate Program .
For other tips to strengthen your relationship now? Follow Elevate Georgia Couples on Facebook.