Using gratitude as a superpower in your relationship
Gratitude is one of the trends from positive psychology that I want to introduce to you here in the context of your relationship. You'll learn what gratitude is, why it can help you make your relationship happier and more fulfilling. I'll also introduce you to two exercises that will help you exercise your gratitude muscle in your relationship.
What is gratitude anyway?
Defined by Portocarrero and colleagues (2020), gratitude is a tendency to acknowledge the goodwill and positive intent of others toward us and to feel grateful as a result. When you are grateful for your partner, you value and feel fortunate to have that one partner by your side. The opposite of gratitude, taking everything for granted, can make you feel less satisfied with your relationship. Using Maria's situation as an example, I want to show you what you can do to incorporate gratitude into your relationship:
After some time in her relationship, Maria notices how little things bother her more and more about her partner Max. Yesterday he just left his clothes lying around everywhere, little things like that can often spoil her mood lately. Actually, she is basically satisfied with the relationship, but lately she often feels a bit distant towards her partner. This is because she often thinks about the things that bother her about her partner.
Why is gratitude important for your relationship to begin with?
On the basis of relationship experts like John Gottman and some study results, I would like to explain to you why it is important for you to cultivate gratitude in your relationship.
To retrain your negatively oriented brain
Our brains are designed to perceive danger and negative events in the environment. This is because in the past, it was important for our ancestors to be able to quickly detect and react to dangers such as lions or other wild animals or aggressive other tribes. This helped us survive as a species. And because our brains still have the same structures as they did in the past, dangers and negative experiences are still imprinted more strongly in our brains. As a result, in relationships, you need to consciously remind yourself to remember the positive things about your partner.
To shift your focus in relationships
Relationship expert John Gottman has also taken into account this negative tendency in our minds. That's because, as he's found, for a successful relationship and positive balance, it's important to have five times as many positive interactions with your partner as negative ones.
For your well-being in general
Researchers analyzing the relationship between gratitude and well-being found effects of gratitude on our well-being in a meta-analysis of 158 studies. A moderate to strong relationship was found between gratitude and well-being, depending on the measure of satisfaction.
Gratitude as a relationship booster
Gratitude can help create opportunities out of "normal" everyday moments and small things that lead to an increase in relationship quality. In the study by Algoe et al. (2010) and Gordon et al. (2011), gratitude was shown to improve relationship satisfaction. In the former study, men and women who had a grateful partner felt more connected to them and were more satisfied with the relationship. But the Gordon et al. (2011) study shows that gratitude also improves the relationship for the grateful partner: both perceived gratitude for oneself and expressed gratitude increase relationship satisfaction. Gratitude can serve as a reminder of a partner's good qualities and help maintain or improve the relationship.
How exactly gratitude improves relationships
How exactly does gratitude affect relationships? The study by Kubacka et al, 2011, examined just that. In doing so, the authors found that Partner A, let´s say, Maria from the previous example, is grateful when she perceives two qualities in her Partner B, Max. The first quality is that Partner Max is experienced as "responsive" by Maria, meaning showing understanding and acceptance toward her and prioritizing her needs. The second quality consists of "relationship work," meaning various behaviors: for example, being reliable and doing tasks that fall to one in the relationship, but also arguing constructively. These behaviors then lead in Maria, who is grateful, to invest in relationship work. Gratitude thus functions like a positive cycle in that the relationship-enhancing behaviors in the other enhance those in the other.
The relationship-enhancing power of gratitude
A second study (Gordon et al., 2012) also confirms the reciprocal circular effect of gratitude. People who felt valued by their partner felt more appreciation for that partner. Individuals who are more grateful to their partner report greater receptivity to their partner's needs, greater connectedness, and stay in the relationship longer. Higher levels of responsiveness and connectedness were observed between appreciative relationship partners, resulting in the transfer of mutual appreciation. These study results demonstrate the importance of gratitude not only in the formation, but also in the successful maintenance of happy relationships.
Gratitude as a relationship buffer among insecure-anxious attachment
It was found in another study (Park et al., 2019) that gratitude plays an important role in relationships with insecure-anxiously attached individuals. Thus, gratitude expressed by Partner B, let´s say, Max, and perceived by Maria acts as a buffer for the negative effects that an avoidant attachment style has on Marias relationship satisfaction and connectedness. Perceived gratitude also leads to greater relationship satisfaction and "commitment" in Maria. In addition, perceived gratitude may buffer the dissatisfaction of insecurely attached individuals and lead to a greater sense of security, which in turn leads to greater satisfaction and attachment after three months.
Exercises to strengthen gratitude in your relationship
To strengthen gratitude in your relationship, I have picked out for you two exercises whose effectiveness (though in the studies for oneself, not for relationships) has been confirmed. These exercises come from Emily Nagoski, she presents two gratitude exercises in her book, which I have applied to relationships here:
1. Gratitude for your partner as a person
- Think about how exactly your partner has helped you see the good in you, want the best for you, and helped you become the person you are.
- Write these thoughts down in a letter if you like.
- If you like, you can also read the letter to your partner. This will make you feel more grateful for 1-3 months!
2. Gratitude for everyday situations
Close your eyes and let today pass by in your mind's eye. Think about the things you are grateful to your partner today. Did he delight you with one of his qualities, help you with something, or are you just grateful for him being there for you?
- Find a title for the situation, e.g., "My partner helped me discuss the difficult situation at work."
- What happened, who said what, did what? What qualities and behaviors from your partner helped you?
- How did you feel in the situation, and now, when you remember it?
- How did the situation come about? What opportunities came together to bring about the event?
I recommend you do this reflection for at least one situation a day, for several weeks. If you like, you can also share the reflection with your partner by discussing it with them, or writing a letter now and then.
Make gratitude a habit in your relationship
To strengthen gratitude permanently in your relationship, you can make it a habit to be grateful every night for one thing your partner has done for you. This way, you train yourself to notice the positive things in your relationship. However, of course, gratitude can't eliminate major conflicts or problems from your relationship. What gratitude can do, however, is reinforce positive feelings and consciously shape your attitude toward your partner in a positive way.
After studying gratitude, Maria realized that she had become very fixated on her partner's small weaknesses. Of course, she knows that gratitude cannot eliminate major conflicts. After addressing these things with her partner, she consciously worked on cultivating gratitude by doing one of the gratitude exercises every night. Since then, she feels closer to her partner again.
Conclusion on strengthening gratitude in relationships
You've learned in this blog article that gratitude can improve your relationship in different ways. In many studies, it has been shown that gratitude leads to higher satisfaction with the relationship in both the grateful partner and the other partner. I've also introduced you to two exercises you can use to practice gratitude for your partner.
Would you like to work on your relationship? I'd love to help you strengthen gratitude in your relationship!
- 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 relationships, 17(2), 217-233.
- Benson, K. (o. D.). The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science. The Gottman Insitute. Abgerufen am 20. September 2022, von https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/.
- 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 psychology, 103(2), 257.
- 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 Bulletin, 37(10), 1362-1375.
- Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Ballantine Books.
- Park, Y., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Lemay Jr, E. P. (2019). Saying “thank you”: Partners’ expressions of gratitude protect relationship satisfaction and commitment from the harmful effects of attachment insecurity. Journal of personality and social psychology, 117(4), 773.
- Portocarrero, F. F., Gonzalez, K., & Ekema-Agbaw, M. (2020). A meta-analytic review of the relationship between dispositional gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 164, 110101.