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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

How Gratitude Strengthens a Marriage

Gratitude is a vital attitude in marriage, a positive indicator that a husband and wife find their relationship satisfying, according to a new study of couples married an average of some 20 years.

The study found that when one spouse inwardly feels grateful for the good things about the other or about their relationship, it is likely that the other spouse experiences a sense of marital satisfaction too. “Specifically, individuals who reported feeling higher levels of gratitude had spouses who were happier with their marriage,” the study says.

In other words, my inward sense of gratitude is a sign of my own marital satisfaction, and it is “relevant” to my wife’s marital happiness. But does my gratitude cause her gratitude? The study does not answer that question.

Cameron Gordon, the study’s lead researcher, told me the study was not designed “to determine that gratitude causes marital satisfaction.” Rather, he said, “we were first trying to determine that the gratitude and satisfaction are in fact related” for long-married couples.

It is possible, he added, that “being happier in marriage may cause individuals to be more grateful, just as being more grateful may cause greater marital satisfaction.” Gordon is a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

A report on the study, titled “Have You Thanked Your Spouse Today? Felt and Expressed Gratitude Among Married Couples,” was published in November in Personality and Individual Differences, a professional journal.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study indicates that outward expressions of gratitude were outranked by a spouse’s “felt” — or inward — sense of gratitude when it came to predicting the other spouse’s sense of satisfaction.

“We were not at all surprised to find that individuals who were more grateful were also happier in their marriage,” Gordon said. He explained, however, that what “came as more of a surprise” was the finding “that if ‘Ted’ feels more grateful, then ‘Sally’ reports being happier in her marriage — even if ‘Ted’ isn’t actually expressing any gratitude to ‘Sally!’”

Of course, a spouse “who feels more gratitude also tends to express more of it,” the study says. Moreover, it comments, spouses “who express more gratitude have spouses who report feeling more gratitude.”

Marriage counselors, marriage educators and others who help couples strengthen their marriages may find this study beneficial. The very process employed with couples, prompting them to reflect on gratitude over a period of 14 days, led the researchers to suspect that “couples may be able to easily incorporate interventions containing positive components such as a focus on gratitude.”

Gordon, who himself works with couples, called attention to gratitude as a positive quality. “Creating something positive in marriage is very different from removing something negative,” he said. He continued:

“Much research has shown that negatives in marriage (e.g., contempt, poor communication, etc.) have a very powerful, corrosive effect on the relationship. By comparison, we know very little about how positives may enhance or sustain a flourishing marriage — especially … a long-term relationship.”

Interventions seeking to strengthen marriages by focusing on gratitude “may wish to emphasize each individual’s own experience of gratitude,” rather than making outward expressions of gratitude their sole point of concern, the study report suggests.

It adds, though, that spouses “may benefit from learning to pay attention” when one of them expresses gratitude outwardly and from taking care to avoid misinterpreting statements of gratitude. The researchers had speculated, for example, that couples sometimes misinterpret outward expressions of gratitude as manipulative attempts “to get something” or as “a simple habit of interaction” that over time “goes unnoticed.”

Yet, one reason it is valuable for a spouse “to become more mindful” of the things he or she appreciates about the other is that those who are inwardly grateful tend to express their gratitude outwardly, according to the study.

An “encouraging finding” of the study was its suggestion that “individuals have the capacity to share their gratitude in meaningful ways with one another,” the researchers state.

Gordon thinks “it would be a wonderful idea to speak with engaged couples” about all this, calling their attention to the importance in marriage of “taking time each day to consciously direct their attention to things they appreciate about their marriage, their spouse and their life more generally.”

He cautioned that “it may not be easy to focus our attention on gratitude, particularly when we are struggling with a bad day or difficult life circumstances.” That is because “our brains are built to identify negatives, which often tend to monopolize our attention.” But while “it may not come naturally to focus on gratitude daily, nonetheless we have things to be grateful for all around us,” he said.

“Many of us think it is our spouse’s job to do something wonderful that inspires us to be grateful,” Gordon told me. But he said he “would argue that it is our responsibility to actively seek out things to be grateful for in our spouse.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.