I had one goal when I started graduate school five years ago – to understand why some romantic relationships thrive while others fail. I also had one primary hypothesis – relationships fail when partners begin to take each other for granted. And I thought: if taking each other for granted is the poison, maybe gratitude is the antidote.
Back when I started, few people were talking about gratitude. Today it is everywhere, and for good reason. A decade of burgeoning research has highlighted the myriad benefits of gratitude for physical and mental well-being. And we've found that gratitude is good in large part because it helps us create and hold onto our close relationships.
In research by Sara Algoe and colleagues, grateful couples were more satisfied in their relationships and felt closer to each other (see this post for the details of their findings). And in our research, we found that the more grateful participants were, the more likely they were to still be in their relationships nine months later.
What do I mean by gratitude? When I examine the role of gratitude in relationships, I’m not just looking at what happens when people say “thanks” after their partner takes out the trash. My definition of gratitude includes appreciating not just what your partner does, but who they are as a person. You’re not just thankful that your partner took out the trash—you’re thankful that you have a partner who is thoughtful enough to know you hate taking out the trash. Gratitude means thinking about all of your partner’s best traits and remembering why you got into a relationship with them in the first place.
But how does gratitude help couples?
Along with several colleagues, I recently published a series of studies exploring this question. We found that gratitude can help relationships thrive by promoting a cycle of generosity. That is, that one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that help them signal gratitude to each other and promote a desire to hold onto their relationships. So how exactly does this cycle work?
Feel more grateful –> Want to hold onto your relationship
This part of the process is very simple: Moments of gratitude help people recognize the value in their partners and a valuable partner is a partner worth holding onto. We found this to be true in a number of studies – on days when people feel more appreciative of their partners than typical, they also report increased feelings of commitment to their relationships. And the benefits of gratitude are not just in daily life – the more grateful people are at the beginning of the study, the more committed they are nine months later. So it seems that feelings of gratitude are associated with a psychological motivation to maintain the relationship.
Feel more grateful -> Work to hold onto your relationship
In addition to being more psychologically motivated to hold onto a relationship, experiences of gratitude also appear to promote behaviors that will help people hold onto their relationships. In one study, we found that people reported being more thoughtful and responsive to their partners needs on days when they felt more grateful for their partners. In another study we brought couples into the lab and had them talk about important topics in their relationships. Participants who were more grateful for their partners were observed as being more caring and attentive listeners to their partners during these discussions. A plethora of research has shown that being a more thoughtful and attentive partner is key for promoting intimacy in relationships, and these findings suggest that gratitude might help people gain and maintain that intimacy.
Work to maintain relationship -> Partner feels more appreciated
This is where the good stuff happens. Recognizing you have a valuable partner and acting accordingly can help your partner feel more valued. In the lab study of couples, we found that when people feel more grateful, they signal those feelings to their partners through their behaviors. In the lab study of couples, participants who were better listeners during those conversations in the lab had partners who reported feeling more appreciated by them.
Partner feels appreciated -> Partner more grateful
In our research we find that an appreciated partner is a grateful partner. On days when people report feeling more appreciated by their partners, they experience increases in their own feelings of gratitude for their partners. And this makes sense - what partner is more valuable than one who clearly values you?
And this is where the benefits of gratitude really take off – going back to the initial steps in this cycle, we remember that a grateful partner is a partner who will think and act in ways that help him hold onto the relationship. Suddenly both partners are focused on maintaining the relationship. In this way, that first moment of gratitude can potentially become an ongoing cycle of gratitude and generosity (until one of you is too tired, stressed, or anxious, but that is a story for another essay).
It’s important to say that gratitude isn’t always the answer—and it can sometimes hurt you. Our research is focused on understanding what factors promote the maintenance of healthy relationships that may be experiencing a bump in the road. Gratitude is good if the relationship is good. There are, however, some relationships that people should not be trying to hold onto, as when there is physical or emotional abuse. Looking for moments of gratitude in unhealthy relationships may encourage people to stay in relationships they should be ending.
But for normal, healthy, everyday dissatisfaction, this research suggests that you don’t have to sit idly by and grow resentful when you are feeling neglected. Instead take some time to reflect on your relationship and promote your own feelings of gratitude. These feelings can help you focus on boosting your own positive feelings about the relationship and down the line you may find yourself feeling more appreciated in turn.
Gordon AM, Impett EA, Kogan A, Oveis C, & Keltner D (2012). To have and to hold: gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103 (2), 257-74 PMID: 22642482