(Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes via Flickr / Creative Commons)
Contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce, according to relationship experts John and Julie Gottman (read here about 3 other toxic behaviors to avoid). Also according to the Gottmans’ long-term research on “master couples” who handle relationship stress and conflict in stride and remain happy, one behavior is the “antidote” to contempt: gratitude. But how do we get into the groove of sharing gratitude with our loved one when we may have never consistently done it before?
We’ve probably all been in the situation where we’re too busy and too tired and we start to take our partner for granted. Maybe your wife does all the bills each month, or takes the kids to school most of the time, or your husband does all the laundry, and after a while, you stop thanking her or him for their work. Perhaps there are things your partner does that you don’t even notice, like cleaning up while you’re gone or researching programs for the kids online.
What follows are 4 simple practices you can try to bring gratitude back into your life. These are geared towards helping you get ideas about what you can thank your partner for. You can come up with the actual means that would work best in your particular relationship, e.g., thanking her directly or writing him a note.
1. Make a chores list and transform it into a thank-you list
We’ve created a template for busy couples and parents that you can download after signing up for our mailing list here. It’s an easy-to-use Excel template that you can adapt to your own living situation, and includes a comprehensive list of categories of activities, as well as many common activities couples need to juggle.
After downloading the template, choose a good hour or more when you can sit down with your partner and carefully go through these tasks, customize to your own situation, and agree on who generally will be responsible for each (or agree which ones might be shared, and how – such as picking up the kids from school).
Here’s the kicker: use this not just to agree on who does what, but use it to thank the other person. Once you’ve agreed on the list, try printing it out and posting it somewhere visible, like on the fridge or on a family white board. You might even highlight the items you can’t recall having recently thanked your partner for. This will serve as a reminder until you get in the habit of noticing more and thanking more.
2. Keep a gratitude journal
This practice has been studied by researchers for decades now and while scientists may debate the optimal frequency and exact methods of keeping such journals, the basic finding is this: writing regularly about what you’re thankful for, and even exploring why the good events in your life may have come about, can be particularly helpful to your wellbeing. (Read more on the science of gratitude by John Tierney in the New York Times and a summary of research on gratitude by Eric Barker).
I’d recommend you find a practice that works for you, and keep a journal about how it’s going. If daily is too frequent, then try every other day or once weekly. If your gratitude items feel shallow, try a reflection exercise based on whatever you come up with. For instance, if you’re grateful for a kind neighbor, in your journal you can explore why he or she is nice. What might have been going well in their lives? Is it their personality? Is there something you can do for them?
3. Try a gratitude buddy practice
This is a practice that as far as we know may have been invented by contributing writer Steve Robillard and his friend. As he wrote previously in these pages (Gratitude: a practical guide to manning up (Part 1) and Gratitude, Part 2), the practice involves finding a friend who is willing to exchange gratitude lists without judgment. Including a friend adds a sense of playfulness, trust, and accountability to a gratitude practice. Steve tried a daily rhythm, but again – please experiment to find what works for you. Perhaps do it once on Mondays – what a great way to start the week! It may be also worth trying with a spouse or partner as a way to develop more understanding and appreciation of each other.
4. Write your partner a thank-you note or letter
When holidays, anniversaries, or birthdays crop up, do you remember to get your wife or partner a little something? Beyond the basic benefits of some romancing – any at all, which can feel hard to come by when you’re busy and tired – you might write in your card some heartfelt thoughts of gratitude. Try handwriting a letter on some nice, thick paper, or printing one up if your penmanship is too sloppy to read. In such a letter, you can thank your partner in your own words for what she has been doing for you, your children (if you have them), and herself. In addition to what we’ve already written about above, writing also has a benefit of being less likely to sound corny than when you say things aloud. And she’ll have something she can go back to and read later, which adds to the benefit. You can also sort out your feelings – which can take days or weeks if you’re not used to it! (more on how exactly to do that here) – over multiple drafts before it’s show time! Better yet, try doing all of this but surprising her on some random, ordinary day. What better surprise than receiving an honest note from your loved one where you are thanked for your kindness, hard work, and love?
When writing such notes, please make sure to write in your own voice. You may need to type out a few drafts, or type and revise on the computer, then write it out by hand for the final draft. You’re welcome to quote other sources, but only do so if the material really moved you. I.e., don’t drop Shakespeare just because it’s Shakespeare. But if you read a sonnet and it moved you to tears, that’s different. It’s all about authenticity, and someone who loves you and cares for you will see through shallow BS in a second.
To build more gratitude into your relationship, try one of these:
- Build a chores list together and then use it as a gratitude reminder
- Start a gratitude journal
- Start a gratitude buddy practice
- Write your loved one a heartfelt thank-you note
Please try these out and share your comments below.
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