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—that relationships fail when partners begin to take each other for granted. And I thought: If taking each other for granted is the poison, then gratitude might be the antidote.
Back when I started, few people were talking about gratitude. Today it is everywhere, and for good reason. More and more research has highlighted the myriad benefits of gratitude for physical and mental well-being. 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. And in our research, we found that participants’ reported feelings of gratitude towards a romantic partner predicted who would stay in their relationships and who would break up nine months later. The more grateful participants were, the more likely they were to still be in their relationship.
When I examine the role of gratitude in relationships, I’m not just looking at what happens when people say “thanks” after their partners take 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, one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that convey gratitude to each other and promote commitment to their relationship. How does this cycle work? Read on.
Step One: 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 worth holding onto, of course. We found this to be true in a number of studies—i.e., when people feel more appreciative than usual of their partners, they also report more feelings of commitment.
And this benefit of gratitude has long-term consequences: The more grateful people were at the beginning of the study, the more committed they were nine months later. So it seems that feelings of gratitude are tied to the motivation to maintain one’s relationship.
Step Two: Feel more grateful –> Work to keep your relationship
But being motivated to stay in a relationship is only part of the story. We also need to act on that motivation. And gratitude is valuable here as well: Experiencing gratitude also seems to promote behaviors that 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 them.
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 during these discussions—a key for promoting intimacy in relationships. These findings suggest that gratitude might help people gain and maintain that intimacy.
Step Three: Work to keep relationship –> Partner feels 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 our study of couples in a lab, we found that when people feel more grateful for their partner, they signal those feelings through more caring and attentive behavior—for instance, by asking clarifying questions of their partner when he or she is discussing a problem. These gestures can have profound effects: Participants who were better listeners during those conversations in the lab had partners who reported feeling more appreciated by them.
Step Four: Partner feels appreciated –> Partner more grateful
Now we complete the cycle: 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. So now, both partners are focused on maintaining the relationship. In this way, that first moment of gratitude can spark 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).
When is gratitude good?
It’s important to say that gratitude isn’t always the answer—and it can sometimes hurt you.
Our research tries to identify the factors that sustain 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 try 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 your relationship—and down the line, you may find yourself feeling more appreciated in turn.