As a parent to a preschooler, one of my pet peeves has been teaching my daughter to say: “Thank you.” I mean no disrespect to “please,” “excuse me,” or “bless you,” all of which I’ve also espoused. But expressing thanks strikes me as the foundation of politeness and a key to strong relationships with others.
A recent study from the University of Carolina at Wilmington affirms the power of gratitude, but has me reconsidering my assumptions about expressing it.
According to Cameron Gordon, the study’s lead author:
“[E]xpressing gratitude to your spouse doesn’t seem to be very strongly associated with…relationship satisfaction…[But] if you feel grateful, your spouse is more likely to rate being happy in the relationship.”
I had to read that quotation twice to get the gist because, frankly, it shocked me to learn there was no correlation between a spouse verbally expressing gratitude and relationship satisfaction. Instead, the crucial finding was:
Relationship satisfaction and a spouse’s feelings of gratitude are linked. Our spouse’s emotional state of thankfulness impacts us more than their words.
Why the power of feelings over words? For starters, words are more open to interpretation: Is he really grateful or buttering me up because he wants something? Is she genuinely appreciative or do I sense sarcasm? Is that a reflex or a sincere thank you? (Check out my post on sincerity.)
In contrast to the ambiguity of words, when our spouses feel grateful for us, we’re likely to sense their emotional attitude. In turn, their positive feelings for us impact our appreciation of our relationship with them.
None of this is prescriptive: Fulfilling relationships might inspire more feelings of gratitude as much as gratitude enhances relationship satisfaction.
Yet, even if that holds true, there are important lessons here about:
(1) The positive impact of felt-gratitude upon those we care about; &
(2) The power of understanding how our loved ones like to be appreciated.
Perhaps, the reason that the link between expressed-gratitude and relationship happiness isn’t as strong as the link with felt-gratitude is that our style of saying thank you, in words and actions, is often filtered through our preferences.
If that old standard “thank you” is open to misinterpretation, it might be worthwhile to do a little research and ask our spouses how they most like and want to be appreciated by us.
Once we recognize that we each express and receive gratitude uniquely, and that “thank you” might not always strike a chord, we can tailor gratitude to our spouse’s preferences, and also give them a chance to express their appreciation in a way that resonates for us.
Below are a few questions to help explore gratitude in a deeper way. Not only can you ask these questions of your spouse, but you can answer them and share your responses with him or her:
When do you feel most appreciated in our relationship?
What are the best ways for me to show my gratitude for you?
If I were to express my appreciation for you just 10% more than I do now, what might I do or say that would be meaningful to you?
Thinking of non-romantic relationships in your life, who makes (or made) you feel most appreciated? How did they do that?
Paying attention to how we express and receive gratitude isn’t just a boon to our relationships, it also dovetails with parenting.
Thanks to the University of Carolina research, I’m trying to be more conscious of feeling grateful whenever possible, including when I say “thank you.” For my sake, for the sake of the person I’m thanking, and for my kids, I want my words to be genuine, not automatic; I want to feel grateful when I say I’m grateful.
I also believe that the more we work with our spouses to better understand each other—including better understanding our individual experiences of gratitude—and the more we accommodate our differences respectfully and kindly, the more our kids will learn those skills, too.
In the end, they’ll thank us for it, if only and especially in how they feel about us.