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“I don’t know why I feel uncomfortable saying it, but I do.”

This is a frequent refrain when I talk to fellow married people about gratitude. How much is too much? Too little? What if the other person just isn’t into talking about their emotions? It’s a funny thing, the way two simple words—thank you—can hold so much meaning. 

The literature on gratitude, however, is unambiguous. In times of stress, for instance, gratitude shields our marriages from the worst, protecting marital commitment from decline and preventing an increase in divorce proneness (Barton, Futris, & Nielsen, 2015).

The effect of gratitude can even be physical: In one classic study, people who kept a gratitude journal actually slept better and experienced fewer health symptoms (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

The good news is, you can strengthen your marriage with gratitude while staying authentic to yourself and to your partner. Below are two ways that may already come naturally to you.

1. Thank your spouse not for the task, but for what it meant.

On her way home from work, a friend of mine—let’s call her Rachel—was dreading the household chores that awaited her. Plot twist: When she got home, they were all done. The dishwasher was humming. The dog had been watered and walked. Dinner was already underway as her husband stood by the stove, beaming with pride. Rachel was speechless.

“I was grateful, but I also thought about keeping that to myself,” she confessed. “I didn’t want to act like, Oh, wow! Thank you so much!” 

Psychologists Nathaniel Lambert, Steven Graham, and Frank Fincham (2014) distinguish between two kinds of gratitude: benefit-triggered and generalized. The first is a response to a “transfer of a benefit” from one person to another.

The second is a “thrill of being,” an experience we have in “the presence of cherished others”—and, I’d argue, closer to what we feel when our spouses do something thoughtful for us, completely unbidden.

Consider this: If it feels insincere to say, “Oh wow! Thank you so much for walking the dog!” it might be because your gratitude is less about the dog, more about your spouse being the kind of person they are—the kind of person who intuitively knows when you need a hand. 

Try this instead: “Thank you for taking care of me. I know you’ve had a long day too, and simple things like walking the dog, even though it was my night to do it, remind me how thoughtful you are.”

2. Try speaking a different love language.

Think back to a time you just knew your spouse was really grateful for you. How did you know? Often, when I ask someone this question, the stories I hear back don’t actually feature the words “thank you.” 

  • “It was the way he looked at me,” one woman told me, recalling a time her husband was recovering from an illness.
  • “She’ll leave notes in chalk on our blackboard, so I’ll see them when I hang up my keys.”
  • “He knows I’m quite obsessed with art, so he’ll send me a piece of art or music. It’s like, ‘You’re still in my mind.’”

Even though a verbal “thank you” can be deeply affirming, there are myriad other ways to express gratitude. In fact, in one study, 94 participants were asked to list the defining features of gratitude. Among the most central and positive? A simple hug (Lambert et al., 2009). 

Other studies have shown that when we experience gratitude in close relationships, it’s natural to engage in more relationship maintenance behaviors, like solving conflict together (Kubacka et al., 2011). 

The next time words feel inadequate, try showing your partner gratitude, instead of saying it. It can be as simple as a text during the day, a squeeze of the hand, a hug—all those gestures that say so much, without saying anything at all. 

However you express gratitude, verbally, physically, or otherwise, the most important thing is just to do it. In fact, do it today, when you finish reading this blog post.

One study found that feeling grateful for your spouse can increase relationship satisfaction as soon as the next day  (Algoe et al., 2010)—and, even better, it kicks off what social psychologist Amie Gordon calls a “positive upward cycle” (Gordon et al., 2012). 

That is, when you feel grateful for your partner, your partner feels grateful for you. In short, gratitude is the closest thing we have to a relationship superpower. Let’s make the most of it.

References

  • Barton, A. W., Futris, T. G., & Nielsen, R. B. (2015). Linking financial distress to marital quality: The intermediary roles of demand/withdraw and spousal gratitude expressions. Personal Relationships, 22(3), 536-549.
  • Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology84(2), 377.
  • Lambert, N. M., Graham, S. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2009). A prototype analysis of gratitude: Varieties of gratitude experiences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin35(9), 1193-1207.
  • Kubacka, K. E., Finkenauer, C., Rusbult, C. E., & Keijsers, L. (2011). Maintaining close relationships: Gratitude as a motivator and a detector of maintenance behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin37(10), 1362-1375.
  • Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal relationships17(2), 217-233.
  • Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of personality and social psychology103(2), 257.

Lisa is a graduate of Y Combinator’s Startup School and of Flashpoint, a startup incubator from Georgia Tech’s Center for Deliberate Innovation. She’s the creator of an Alexa skill called Mindful Couple, which helps married people create a daily practice of gratitude. You can try it by saying, “Alexa, enable Mindful Couple.”