My buddy Fred Luskin recently stopped by for tea to show me his wedding pictures and tell me all about his new love—a whirlwind 50-something romance, a second great love after the death of his beloved wife of 25 years. Fred is someone who has written books about relationships, a guy who has actually figured out how to make a marriage great. He said something that really struck me.
“I text her several times every day,” he said, voice emotional.
“I love you.”
“You are beautiful.”
“And thank you.”
“I’m so grateful,” he told me, “to have a new partner in my life. I feel that every day. It isn’t hard for me to find reasons that I love her, or that I find her beautiful. I’m just so grateful to have her in my life.”
Similarly, Lee Lipsenthal told me and some colleagues about his gratitude for his wife a few months before he passed away. “I’m so grateful for the love in my life,” he told us repeatedly. “I have had a great marriage.”
For years—maybe a decade—Lee had a very specific way of cultivating his gratitude for his wife (with whom, by the way, he didn’t always see eye-to-eye, so much so that he once almost left her, as he discloses in his amazing book, Enjoy Every Sandwhich). Every morning, he would get up to meditate. But instead of getting out of bed, he would open his arms and his wife would roll over onto his chest and go back to sleep. Lee would then do a 45 minute “gratitude meditation” on her, thinking about his wife and all that he appreciated about her.
I have to confess to something: After I talked with these two amazing men about their deep gratitude for their wives, I was jealous. I took notes about how to practice gratitude in my own relationship, yes, but I also wanted my guy to express his gratitude for me. Perhaps by texting me throughout the day, à la Fred.
More about that in a minute. But first, I want to bring in some science to explain why these gratitude practices are so critical to Lee’s and Fred’s relationships.
Lee may or not have expressed his gratitude out loud to his wife; I don’t know if he did. The key thing was that he cultivated his own deep feelings of gratitude for her on a daily basis. Research suggests that it is feeling gratitude for our partner—not necessarily expressing it to him or her—that predicts both how satisfied we feel with our relationship and how satisfied our partner feels as well.
Let me say that again. When we cultivate feelings of gratitude towards our sweethearts (whether we are newly-in-love like Fred, or nurturing a long-term relationship like Lee), we feel more satisfied with our relationship, and—amazingly—our partners feel more connected to us and more satisfied with the relationship, too.
This doesn’t mean we should skip telling our partner how much we appreciate him or her: Research also suggests that expressing gratitude to a romantic partner (or close friend) can make us feel more satisfied with the relationship and increase our sense of responsibility for our partner’s well being. But the real takeaway, in my mind, is that simply feeling gratitude can improve our relationship.
Relationships are hard, especially when there are kids in the picture. People can be annoying to live with, and very often we have vast differences in opinion about important shared issues, like how to discipline the kids.
But despite these difficulties, we want to feel loved and cherished and appreciated. Maybe, like me, you’ve felt longing for that love story.
What I’ve learned about gratitude’s role in our love stories is this: It starts within our own self. When we consciously foster feelings of appreciation for our loved ones—whether by doing a gratitude mediation about them every morning or by deliberately focusing on specific things we love about them—our relationship improves.
We feel more in love. They feel more connected. We foster those love-story feelings we crave.
Gordon. Cameron L; Arnette, Robyn A.M; Smith, Rachel, E (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today?: Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(3), 339-343.
Algoe, Sara, shelly Gabel, and Natalya Maisel (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romanitc relationships. Personal Relationships, (17), 217-233.
© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.