When you become aware and appreciative of that which is valuable and meaningful, that is called gratitude. Gratitude needs to be expressed, and what we notice in our marriage is that we tend to experience it more than we express it. So we thought we should think more about that.
Gratitude is a powerful thing. Being mindful of all the good things in your life can change your whole outlook and make you a happier, more contented person. This is especially true in your marriage. It might not always be easy to be thankful for your spouse and your marriage, but if your marriage is struggling them making gratitude a part of your daily thinking can really turn things around.
Benefits of Gratitude
Research finds that expressions of gratitude have positive effects on marital satisfaction[i] . This works as both a long term way of building satisfaction over time, and also as a “booster shot” where gratitude produces short term increases in satisfaction[ii].
You probably already knew this: gratitude is good for your marriage. Let’s unpack how and why it helps, and then look at ways to increase the amount of gratitude we all show to our spouses.
Gratitude and Relationship Strength
A study in 2010[iii] surveyed 137 couples for how often they expressed gratitude to their spouse. In a follow up study they asked spouses to express gratitude to each other, with a control condition of thinking grateful thoughts without expressing them.
In both studies they found that expressing gratitude increased the expresser’s perception of the “communal strength” of the relationship. Regularly expressing gratitude increased this sense of joint strength and commitment over time. Expressions of gratitude towards your partner are also linked to more positive perceptions of them[iv].
This was specifically true for the expresser of gratitude, not the person receiving it. So if you are unhappy because of the lack of gratitude you may actually need to try expressing it more rather than requesting it more!
The other crucial point is that the effect was only found for expressing gratitude, not just thinking it. So being grateful for your spouse is not enough to benefit from this increased relationship strength: you have to express it.
Commitment and Reciprocity
Now there is a reciprocal component to gratitude.
Expressions of gratitude towards your spouse leads to them feeling appreciated and valued. Feeling appreciated then leads to them appreciating you more.
So expressing gratitude strengthens the relationship for both the expresser and the receiver of gratitude. Increased appreciation leads spouses to be more sensitive to each other’s needs and over time leads to higher levels of commitment[v]. The simple act of giving voice to the things you value about your spouse brings you closer together and helps you see each other in a better light.
Gratitude also helps couples grow closer together and become better at responding to each other’s needs. Expressing gratitude for actions that really matter to you, or things that show that your spouse has been especially thoughtful helps to solidify those actions and helps your spouse to notice that their actions were appreciated. Put simply: if you say you like something your spouse did, they are more likely to do it again!
Expressing gratitude therefore creates and “upward spiral” where positive actions are reinforced and both spouses end up feeling closer together[vi]. You both end up benefiting.
This is what we have talked about before when we encourage you to reinforce what you want more of. That positive cycle or upward spiral is a powerful force for good in your marriage.
Another study in 2009[vii] surveyed 166 people and found a link between trait gratitude (being a grateful person generally) and a sense of “coherence”: the belief that life is meaningful and that you are able to cope with it. Being a grateful person helps you see life as having value and meaning.
This is why the Bible teaches us to be thankful people — it actually helps us cope with life and make sense of it. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 ESV
But there’s another piece to this. The mediating factor between gratitude and coherence is positive reframing: the tendency to interpret your spouse’s actions positively and focus on positive aspects of the relationship rather than negative.
Increasing your gratitude enables you to interpret your spouse’s actions more positively, which increases commitment and relationship satisfaction, among many other benefits. We looked at attributions and interpretation and how they can benefit your marriage in a recent episode, and gratefulness taps into the exact same process.
Growing Your Attitude of Gratitude
Once again we’ve created a bonus PDF worksheet called “Growing Your Attitude of Gratitude” which is available to our much appreciated supporters. It will really help you take this idea of gratitude from being a concept to actually implementing this in your marriage so that you can experience the amazing benefits that come from gratitude. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Gratitude Impacts Conflict Resolution
There are even more benefits to feeling and expressing gratitude. For example, expressions of gratitude are linked to better ability to resolve conflict, and a greater confidence in your ability to solve disagreements peacefully[viii]. Gratitude leads to more positive feelings about your spouse, which leads to feeling more comfortable expressing concerns about the relationship. And this comfort lets you talk about tricky subjects constructively rather than getting defensive or pulling away.
Buffering Against Distress
Expressions of gratitude can protect couples from suffering as a result of hardships and distressing circumstances. For example a study in 2015[ix] found that expressions of gratitude between couples prevented financial distress from negatively impacting their marital quality. Just having high levels of gratitude built into your marriage helps you appreciate the good times and can make the hard times more bearable.
It’s amazing to think of this powerful buffering effect in marriage.
Feeling and expressing high levels of gratitude also has numerous personal benefits, such as[x]:
- High levels of optimism
- Better ability to progress towards personal goals
- Feeling better about your life overall
- Improved mental health
- Greater willingness to help people
- Fewer negative health symptoms
All of this good stuff will naturally have a positive impact on your marriage too.
How to Increase Gratitude in Marriage
So if you weren’t sold on gratitude being a good thing, hopefully you’re on board now. So how do you bring more if it into your marriage?
You and I can work on developing gratitude as a trait and as part of our personality by regularly thinking of things we are grateful for (either about our spouses or about life in general) and expressing these thoughts. Remember that expression is key: you might think your spouse is the best thing in the world (hopefully you do!) but unless you let them know then it isn’t going to do much good.
This is where we need to take this from just being theory to “how can I actually make this part of my life?”
Specific factors in increasing your “attitude of gratitude” include the following[xi]:
- Find new things to be grateful for, rather than just appreciating the same traits/actions in your spouse all the time.
- Gratitude should be expressed in a genuine and natural way that fits with your personality and values, rather than being forced or rote.
- When starting out, don’t do it too regularly. An interesting study from 2007[xii] found that people who were asked to express gratitude once a week showed higher wellbeing after 6 weeks, but participants asked to express gratitude 3 times a week did not.
For those asked to do it more regularly, it may become harder work to think of things to be grateful for, and therefore become an obligation or chore rather than being genuine.
I think that’s the idea of intermittent reinforcement — it’s more powerful if you give your dog a treat occasionally when he sits down than to give him a treat every time. If it’s too strong or if it’s forced or if it becomes ritualistic — all these things take away from gratitude being a genuine, simple act.
But expressing gratitude toward new things and keeping it real turns it into a positive habit which makes it much more likely to influence your thinking and actions and your marriage.
Prayer Increases Gratitude
Another useful consideration is your faith. Speaking from a research based perspective, religious faith has been shown to increase gratitude.
More specifically, thankfulness is encouraged in Christianity and when we attribute good things in our lives to God this helps create a sense of thankfulness. Prayers of thankfulness are an important part of this. A study in 2009[xiii] found a strong link between the frequency of prayer and levels of thankfulness. They found that frequency of prayer predicts gratitude 6 weeks later, suggesting that prayer causes gratitude, rather than grateful people praying more often.
In the app I use for prayer I have this occasional item that comes up where I compel myself to stop and think of three things I am grateful for. Like we saw earlier, I do not want this to be a daily routine. When it’s intermittent it kind of throws me off balance from routine prayer and really challenges me to pause and consider what new, or current, or prominent blessings I need to be showing gratitude to God for. It’s an exercise I enjoy and that I’d recommend to you as well. Gratitude is such a wonderful thing and anything that helps you experience it more is definitely worth your time. So start thinking of ways you can express more gratitude in your life and in your marriage!
[i] Nathaniel M. Lambert and Frank D. Fincham, ‘Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Leads to More Relationship Maintenance Behavior’, Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11.1 (2011), 52–60 <https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021557>.
[ii] Sara B. Algoe, ‘Find, Remind, and Bind: The Functions of Gratitude in Everyday Relationships’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6.6 (2012), 455–69.
[iii] Nathaniel M. Lambert, Frank D. Fincham, Tyler F. Stillman, and others, ‘Motivating Change in Relationships: Can Prayer Increase Forgiveness?’, Psychological Science, 21.1 (2010), 126–32.
[iv] Lambert and Fincham.
[v] Amie M. Gordon and others, ‘To Have and to Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance in Intimate Bonds’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103.2 (2012), 257.
[vii] Nathaniel M. Lambert, Steven M. Graham, and others, ‘A Changed Perspective: How Gratitude Can Affect Sense of Coherence through Positive Reframing’, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4.6 (2009), 461–70 <https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760903157182>.
[viii] Lambert and Fincham.
[ix] Allen W. Barton, Ted G. Futris, and Robert B. Nielsen, ‘Linking Financial Distress to Marital Quality: The Intermediary Roles of Demand/Withdraw and Spousal Gratitude Expressions’, Personal Relationships, 22.3 (2015), 536–49 <https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12094>.
[x] Nathaniel M. Lambert, Frank D. Fincham, Scott R. Braithwaite, and others, ‘Can Prayer Increase Gratitude?’, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1.3 (2009), 139.
[xi] Kennon M. Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky, ‘Is It Possible to Become Happier?(And If so, How?)’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1.1 (2007), 129–45.
[xii] Sheldon and Lyubomirsky.
[xiii] Lambert, Fincham, Braithwaite, and others.