Gratitude for couples

We’ve talked about the neuroscience of gratitude and its importance in our lives.

A healthy practice of gratitude is a way to acknowledge the good things in your life. It is also a way to bring more of those good things your way.

To authentically bring gratitude practices into your life it is critical that your partner is a part of that process. Follow these gratitude tips so that you can start to establish a habit of gratitude, together.

Step 1, get curious

Robert Emmons is a psychology professor at the University of California, and perhaps the world’s leading expert on gratitude.

Dr. Emmons’ research identified 5 questions that we can ask ourselves to increase our feeling of gratitude:

  1. What do I typically take for granted?
  2. What would my life be like without this person/event/circumstance that I take for granted?
  3. Consider what a small routine pleasure would be like if you have been deprived of it.
  4. Think about something you really desired for a long time and then finally received. Are you grateful for it now? Why or why not?
  5. Identify your non-grateful thoughts. For example, thinking you deserve better circumstances, that other people are better off; that life is boring, monotonous, tedious; that things have not turned out the way you wanted. What are these doing to your sense of happiness? Are they helping it or hindering it?

Step 2, notice negative thoughts when they arise

Emmons tells us that the secret to maintaining an abiding sense of gratitude during uncertain times is to directly challenge negative thoughts and redirect them. Notice negative thoughts, question or challenge them, and finally reframe or re-direct those thoughts. 

How does this work?

Imagine the intrusive thought; “My husband and I are constantly bickering, lockdown will never end, we will be miserable forever.

Negative thoughts remind us of what is lacking, and often gloss over any potential positive. “Lockdown is hard, and I’m grateful for the fact that nobody in our family is sick, and we’re all in this together. My husband and I are managing a lot right now, I am proud of us.”

“If we can short-circuit anti-grateful thoughts, we have a good chance of taking control over our emotional lives and developing an emotional resilience that is immune to changing circumstances.”

Robert Emmons

Step 3, choose to practice these gratitude tips

Couples are under siege by external stressors beyond their control. Finding gratitude is about pausing to notice external grace and this may be one of the most powerful gratitude tips in the list. Gratitude is a conscious action.

Gratitude for couples
  • Decide to be grateful. Gratitude is a mindset that is akin to an emotional muscle. Gratitude is built by reflection and noticing. 
  • Write everything you are grateful for on a hand-written list. Research tells us that when we focus our mind on the specific things we are grateful for, it reduces stress, improves mood, and is a tonic to the nervous system. Consider sharing this list with your partner.
  • Better yet, keep a gratitude journal. I’m only asking for 5 minutes a day. You see, if you journal for 5 minutes every day about what you are grateful for your long-term happiness is enhanced by over 10% (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005)!
  • Drawing a blank? steal this idea. Write down everything in your gratitude journal that you feel grateful for in your life right now. Having trouble getting started? Here are 100 ideas to jump-start your attitude of gratitude. You can also pray, meditate, or express thanks.
  • Become a connoisseur of kindness. Notice your partner’s kindness and express appreciation often. Couples who express gratitude to one another on a regular basis have happier and more satisfying relationships.

Gratitude in any form can expand awareness, lift the mind, and soothe our thoughts. The bottom line is that gratitude facilitates happiness

(Russell and Fosha, 2008)

Step 4, sleep on it

The gratitude tips follow us into our nighttime routine. Here is Dr. Emmon’s bedtime gratitude practice modified for couples. Do this every night with your partner for 2 weeks…

1. About a half-hour before going to bed, take 5 minutes to write down anything that you are grateful for that happened today.

2. Spend some time sharing each of these things with your partner, this allows you to really focus on each item. Then listen to their list.

3. Step 2 is critical!  The more you focus your thoughts on fully remembering each experience the stronger this exercise will be. You will learn more about what your partner is grateful for in their life and end your day together on a positive note.

This simple daily practice may help improve your sleep, allowing you to arise feeling more rested and ready to face a new day.

“It may sound simplistic, but the evidence cannot be ignored: if you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

Robert Emmons

Step 5, write it and share it

Handwritten cards and thank you notes were far more common in the past than they are now. According to the neuroscience of gratitude, sending a note is still a powerful way to express thanks. 

Set an intention to write a note to your partner this week. Leave a note under his cell phone or on her car seat. Let your partner know that you are grateful for all they do in your life.

  1. Have a supply of cards on hand so there will be nothing to stop you from writing an appropriate thank you note.
  2. The act of writing a thank you note works differently in the mind than an email or text. It’s slower, more thoughtful, and more heartfelt. It slows you down so the perfect words can start to flow.
  3. Making it a practice when you really want your gratitude to land. Nothing has the impact of a handwritten note.
  4. Have a low bar for gratitude. You can thank someone just for being there.

You can expand this practice together and share it out. Are there family members that you want to thank together? After you have expressed gratitude for each other, take some time to thank the people that are important in your lives too.

Keep practicing

In my post on the neuroscience of gratitude, I talked about gratitude as an exercise that can build strength and habit, these gratitude tips should help to guide that exercise. 

To simplify that analysis I will say this; the more often we practice these (and other) gratitude tips the quicker these neural pathways are able to see the positive.

This reorients our minds away from problem-saturated thinking. We start to see solutions and opportunities instead of problems and threats. Following these gratitude tips is a great start to that new practice.

For the next couple of weeks notice when your thoughts are moving towards negativity. Don’t deny these feelings or try to ignore the negative or to paint everything with an optimistic brush. Instead acknowledge that the situation is unfortunate, difficult, or challenging. Then dig a little deeper to see if there is some opportunity to also feel gratitude.

Say it out loud, especially before you go to bed. Some days this can be especially challenging.

“Today was hard. I am grateful that today is over and that we have tomorrow to try again. I love you.”

That might be the end of your gratitude list that day, and that’s ok for now–you have tomorrow to try again.

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Need a little help with your gratitude practice? Our relationship experts may be able to help. Send us a message, tell us what your relationship needs right now.

 

Daniel Dashnaw


Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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