Marriage can be hard, because life can be hard. From challenges at work to financial difficulties to raising children, the stresses of everyday life can create tension and conflict within couples.
But a new study from researchers at the University of Georgia has shown that a little gratitude can protect marriages from the toxic effects of conflict.
“All couples experience difficulties and stressors in their everyday lives, financial stress being a very common one,” says Allen Barton, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study. “But clearly not all couples under financial stress exhibit worse marital outcomes. So how do some couples weather the storm better than others?”
While numerous studies have examined the benefits of expressing “thank you” for one’s partner, Barton and his team were curious whether perceiving gratitude from one’s spouse could protect couples from the damage that challenges, specifically economic ones, can wreak on a marriage.
They conducted 468 telephone interviews with married participants that probed the degree to which they felt appreciated by their spouse, their levels of financial strain—and the occurrence of demand/withdrawal behavior, which is “a negative communication pattern where one spouse initiates, criticizes, or nags their spouse about an issue and the other spouse withdraws from the conversation,” says Barton.
They also assessed marriage quality by asking participants how happy they were in their marriage, how committed they were, and how often they considered divorce.
Based on previous research, the scientists believed that external stressors, like financial difficulties, spill over to affect these measures of marital quality, primarily by increasing the number of demand/withdrawal interactions.
Their results, published in Personal Relationships, showed that that spousal gratitude was the most important predictor of marital quality, after controlling for varying levels of financial strain, negative communication patterns, and demographic makeup.
The team also found that gratitude has protective effects—spouses who reported high levels of gratitude from their partner did not suffer any declines in marital stability (commitment and divorce proneness) that often result from poor communication patterns during conflict.
“As long as they still felt appreciated by their spouse,” says Barton, “their levels of marital stability were similar as those couples with more positive communication patterns.”
So although all couples showed increases in demand/withdrawal behavior in the midst of financial strain, that poor communication was not associated with worse marital outcomes for couples that consistently expressed gratitude to each other.
Barton believes that gratitude might have a Teflon-like effect on a marriage. “Gratitude can really help create an environment where negative events such as a financial hiccup or a work stress simply bounce off and don’t have the same negative effect.”
He also claims that gratitude might help catalyze a positive spiral of interactions: people who feel appreciated by their spouse are more likely to feel grateful, leading to a feedback loop of more positive behaviors and attitudes about the marriage.
“In any healthy relationship both partners are investing time and energy for the well being of the family,” says Barton.
At times, this can go unnoticed. “So asking your spouse whether they feel appreciated and finding ways to acknowledge them for the things they do each day, from doing the dishes to watching the kids, goes a long way.”
In future studies, Barton is interested in investigating what exactly makes people feel most appreciated, how this changes over time, and whether couples agree in terms of how much gratitude one partner reports expressing and how much gratitude the other partner reports feeling.
“There are a lot of aspects within couples that, unless they are specifically articulated, go unnoticed. So there could be a degree of disconnect between how much a spouse appreciates their partner and how much that partner feels appreciated,” he says.
So get those thank you’s ready. Your marriage could depend on it.