- Showing and feeling gratitude is not the same.
- Researchers found that feeling your partner values you has the most positive impact.
- Depending on the expression's authenticity, feeling appreciated is a powerful means of sustaining a loving connection between partners.
“I do little things for him, but I don’t think he really appreciates it,” says Jane, speaking about her husband.
Similarly, according to Jim, “Sometimes I wonder if it registers at all when I do things she’d like without her asking.”
Both comments reveal the impact of displaying–or receiving–gratitude on your partner.
New research and clinical observations show how the differences between expressing vs. feeling gratitude affect intimate relationships over time. That is the gratitude you may display towards your partner vs. feeling that your partner values you, which affects the quality of your relationship. That difference includes how you deal with conflicts and differences as a couple; and how you perceive your partner’s view of yourself–as Jane and Jim pondered.
To clarify a bit about “gratitude,” most of us think of it as feeling appreciative about whatever’s going “right” in your life–everything you’ve acquired and feel secure about. Perhaps your financial situation, your material positions, your career. But all of that is ephemeral and transitory. A deeper sense of gratitude reflects the non-material realm, a continuous, intimate connection with all of life, especially with the people you value and love during your lifetime.
Showing vs. Feeling Gratitude Within Your Relationship
A new study from the University of Illinois looked at that realm. It focused on how gratitude plays out in people’s long-term intimate relationships. The study's lead author, Allen W. Barton, pointed out that research usually focuses on demonstrating gratitude through words and deeds and how that impacts the relationship. For example, we see this type of gratitude when we take even a moment to express gratitude for a small act, like when your partner picks up something at the grocery store that you wanted but forgot.
But this new study looked at feelings of gratitude in the absence of such actions. There, the researchers examined what happens when–or if–you experience feeling appreciated by your partner. That’s a feeling that you’re truly valued–independent of words and deeds. Does that have a different impact on the relationship? As Barton explained,
...one could make the argument that feeling appreciated by one's partner is important, too. And we tested both to see whether one was more influential for couple relationships than the other.
What Has the Most Impact
In essence, the study found that perceived gratitude from your partner has a significant positive impact. It increases the positive emotional connection between partners and creates a kind of buffer against unproductive arguing, financial conflicts, and other relationship challenges. Interestingly, no such protective effects were observed for high levels of expressed gratitude in contrast.
Barton explained that Individuals who feel appreciated by their partners have better-functioning relationships. They are more resilient to internal and external stressors, both in the moment when the appreciation is expressed and over the long term.
Overall, Individuals in the sample with higher levels of expressed and perceived gratitude were more satisfied with their relationship. They had greater confidence in its future and reported less instability, such as discussions or thoughts about breaking up. And, these couples "did not exhibit as strong of declines in relationship satisfaction or confidence, or the increases in instability that we typically see" when those types of stressful experiences occur in the relationship.
The Journal of Personal and Social Relationships published a study that researchers conducted over 15 months with over 300 middle-aged couples. The couples were from different socio-economic classes; highly educated and the working poor; both white and African-American, and in midlife.
The key takeaway is that feeling appreciated is a powerful means of sustaining a loving connection between partners. But it depends on how authentic the experience of “receiving” expressions of gratitude and caring feels–contrasted with a sense that your partner is fabricating it, is role-playing a part, but isn’t being “real.”
As Barton pointed out,
Be sure to make compliments that are sincere and genuine. And ask your partner if there are any areas in which they feel their efforts aren't being appreciated or acknowledged and start expressing appreciation for those.
That observation corroborates with clinical observations from therapy with individuals and couples dealing with evolving relationship challenges.
Copyright 2022 Douglas LaBier
Barton, A. W., Christine Jenkins, A. I., Gong, Q., Sutton, N. C., & Beach, S. R. (2022). The protective effects of perceived gratitude and expressed gratitude for relationship quality among African American couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1177_02654075221131288