Feeling taken for granted in your marriage? Learn how to muscle up your partnership with this simple communication strategy.
Would jetting off on a couples retreat to Fiji or cruising the Bahamas help strengthen your marriage? How about regular date nights? While those are wonderful opportunities for connection and bonding, you may not always have the time and resources. Believe it or not, it’s not the grand gestures that make the biggest difference in the health and well-being of a partnership.
Studies suggest that couples who regularly express gratitude toward each other enjoy stronger, happier and more satisfied unions. It makes sense. No one wants to feel unappreciated or taken for granted in a relationship, but it’s a major reason why marriages fail.
What gratitude does for the body.
Soothes stress. We are wired for connection so when a friend or a partner expresses gratitude toward us we often experience sensations associated with pleasure and relaxation. Why?
The nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic system, which is triggered during times of stress, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body once the stress has passed.
The amygdala in the brain pings the hypothalamus during times of stress to activate the sympathetic nervous system. Like a vigilant security officer, these parts of the brain are always scanning for trouble. If danger is sensed the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, which then triggers “fight or flight.” If all is calm and the stress has passed, messaging is sent to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates the body’s “rest and digest” state. The vagus nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system and runs from the brainstem down into the digestive system. The parasympathetic nervous system oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.
But chronic stress, stemming from ongoing issues like an aggravating boss, a troubled teen or frequent fights with your spouse, can continually trigger the sympathetic nervous system, keeping the body on high alert. And, we stay stuck in the fight or flight state longer. This can lead to health issues ranging from chronic illness, anxiety, digestive problems, a weakened immune system and more.
Interestingly, gratitude is a powerful antidote that triggers bonding, trust and connection. Positive social engagement and connection with others signals to the vagal nerve that it’s time to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows and regulates your heartbeat, cues digestion, relaxes the face and neck muscles and calms your breathing.
Gives us warm fuzzies. Gratitude can effectively interrupt negative communication cycles in stressed relationships. Whether you are on the giving or the receiving end of gratitude, the brain lights up with pleasure, releasing positive, feel-good hormones into the body including oxytocin (a.k.a., the cuddle or love hormone), dopamine and serotonin, which help reduce anxiety and depression. Oxytocin which both men and women release, increases romantic attachment with a partner and regulates positive emotional responses like trust, safety, tranquility and empathy.
Optimizes health. A regular gratitude practice in which you celebrate what went well in your day is energizing. You’re less likely to allow daily irritations to get you down. Plus a gratitude practice can lead to better sleep and help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Gratitude is an investment in your relationship’s emotional bank account.
In the mayhem of work, parenting and stressful situations like financial or job insecurity, it’s easy to forget about setting aside time for nourishing an intimate relationship. Making a point to mindfully show gratitude toward one another can help you avoid taking each other for granted. Resentment undermines and erodes the strength of a relationship over time. By expressing gratitude toward each other, your bond regenerates and grows stronger.
“A study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.” ~Harvard Health
Try these simple ways to experience a deeper sense of gratitude for each other:
Give a little, get a little. If you’re the one feeling resentful, look for moments when you do feel appreciative of your spouse and let them know. Your demonstration of gratitude could be just the nudge they need to reflect on what makes them grateful for you and more likely to reciprocate in kind.
Deliver a thoughtful gift. Surprise your mate with a gift of flowers or a special treat you know they’ll love. And don’t be shy about getting creative. The most memorable gifts can cost little to nothing at all and still be intensely personal, romantic and thoughtful. For example, leave a poem on your partner’s pillow, tuck a love note into their luggage before they leave for a trip, or text an audio clip of a song that holds special meaning for the two of you.
Laugh together. A shared sense of humor can go a long way toward building a stronger bond with each other and enhancing feelings of positivity toward each other. Exchange funny memes, watch a funny show together and share experiences from the day that made you laugh.
Use your words. Be specific and let your partner know how particular actions or words made a difference in your day by telling them or writing it down in a note, email or text. For example, “Thank you for always taking Johnny to early morning swim practice. It makes my mornings run so much smoother than they would otherwise.” And don’t be shy about leaving loving voicemails.
Acknowledge the little things. One source of resentment among couples I’ve counseled is when their partner seems oblivious to the little things they care about or like/dislike. For example, I had a client who was hurt that her husband of 10 years had no idea how she liked her eggs cooked. This might sound trivial, but growing up as the youngest in a big, bustling family, she often felt sidelined and forgotten. When her most intimate partner seemed to not know this one detail about her, it triggered those childhood feelings that made her feel unimportant, unloved and unappreciated. Show thoughtful appreciation toward your partner by asking questions, exchanging stories and paying attention to your spouse’s likes and dislikes.
Make a list. Who doesn’t love a good list, especially one your partner can look at again and again whenever they’re having a bad day. Write down 10 things that makes you grateful for your partner and give him or her the list as a gift. This is a fun idea to insert into a Valentine’s Day, birthday or anniversary card.
End-of-day ritual. Before you drift off to sleep at night, the Gottman Institute suggests exchanging the special moments you each experienced that day. Perhaps you’re grateful that a work friend was able to drop everything and take you to the airport when your car died. Or thankful for the customer service agent who patiently helped you navigate a frustrating tech problem. Or in awe of the beautiful sunset on your walk that evening. You’ll learn some of the details about each other’s day and grow closer as a couple.
Touch more. Hugs and gratitude go hand in hand. You probably hug your loved ones and friends when you thank them for their generosity or thoughtfulness. But hugging also works the other way around, eliciting feelings of gratitude.
Try the 20-second hug with your partner, which not only helps dial down stress in the body by releasing the feel-good hormone oxytocin, but also helps you strengthen your romantic bond. Intimacy demonstrates affection and admiration for the other person.
Hold hands while you’re on a walk, in the car or under the table. And don’t just deliver the perfunctory peck on the cheek before work each day. Gottman describes the 6-second kiss as a powerful way to strengthen your bond by suspending life for a moment and just focusing on each other. And of course, kissing can always lead to more!
Compliment each other. Gratitude is about noticing each other and sharing your admiration with each other. Things like, “that dinner you made was delicious, honey.” “You look beautiful.” “Your butt looks great in those jeans!” “I’m so proud of you. I know how hard you worked for that promotion.”
Give your full attention. Whenever you reunite with your partner after being away from each other, set aside time without phones or other distractions. Discuss each other’s day in a stress-free zone. Most of all, take uninterrupted, unplugged time to just listen to each other.
Understand each other’s wiring. As a social species, we’re wired to tune into the energy in the room, picking up on nonverbal messages like tension, sadness, enthusiasm, excitement, concern, etc. This “co-regulation” is especially true with our partners. Co-regulation occurs when your nervous system influences your partner’s nervous system (and vice versa), creating a new relational system.
For example, suppose your partner is in a sour mood after a particularly stressful day. Their mood is likely to dampen your mood even if you were previously feeling upbeat. There are two ways co-regulation might occur in this instance:
(1) You reach over to rub your partner’s shoulders or give them a long, comforting hug to help soothe their stress. In the process, you both begin to relax and there’s a sense of safety.
(2) You grow anxious and worried (or annoyed and impatient). The tension rises, you both become more amped up and suddenly you’re fighting with each other. This can cause both partners to feel as if they’re in danger, triggering a fight, flight or freeze response.
Learning to understand each other’s nervous systems is an essential part of the work I do with couples during therapy. When you become more aware of how the internal exchange of messages is impacting you and your partner’s nervous systems, you can learn to acknowledge your partner’s feelings while self-regulating your own emotional response. By learning to respond to each other with thoughtful understanding, you transform your relationship by strengthening your bond, and demonstrating an understanding of each other’s life experiences and an appreciation for how you each show up in the world.
Need help? We all need help now and then. I work with couples using the Gottman Method, and incorporate Somatic Experiencing. I am a sex-positive therapist and my office is a judgment-free space where couples can work through anything from intimacy to parenting challenges to recovering from infidelity. I also work with individuals on co-parenting and navigating conscious uncoupling. Contact me to book a session.