Whether it be a simple “thank you” or a more sincere compliment, making the effort to express gratitude in marriage has been shown to make couples’ relationships stronger.
A new study from the University of Illinois has found that gratitude in relationships can increase satisfaction, commitment and resilience, and protect couples from stress and arguing. Allen Barton, a human development and family studies professor and researcher, said even couples who are facing a lot of stress could see the benefits of gratitude.
“Not every couple is adept at communicating really well,” Barton said. “Some experience more financial stress than others, and even in the midst of those challenges there’s other things couples can do to help maintain a strong relationship, and very genuine appreciation, at a basic level, can go a long way.”
Barton said gratitude is not only saying thank you but also asking, “What can I do to make you feel appreciated?” or “Are there any areas that you don’t feel appreciated?”
The study, which took 15 months to complete, recorded the effects of gratitude for 316 African American lower-income couples from rural Georgia. The findings of the study were consistent with those from a 2015 study by Barton that primarily surveyed white, middle-income couples.
“This is a topic that is applicable across ethnicities and across races,” Barton said.
Financial stress was one of the top external stressors for couples, according to Barton. But couples were found to feel external and internal stress in their relationship from parenting, in-laws, time management and factors outside their control.
Barton said individuals also tend to overestimate the work they are doing and underestimate the work of their partner. He said researcher Arlie Hochschild, who has long studied human emotions, spurred him to look into the topic.
“She had this really insightful comment that when couples struggle it is rarely over who does what and falls more on the giving and receiving of gratitude,” Barton said.
Barton continued, “Even when the division of labor isn’t divided as equally as they would like, as long as individuals felt appreciated by their partner, they still reported high levels of relationship quality.”
Barton said that when struggling couples are asked to name something their partner did over the past week that they appreciated, they are often left stumped, but stronger couples can usually list a number of things.
With the holidays upon us and more people practicing gratitude, Barton said it should be carried out year-round and not just reserved for one season.