Originally published March 5, 2018.

In the wake of an unforeseen car accident, the reactions of individuals reveal profound nuances in how relationships weather adversity. Kim and Jason’s story stands as a testament to unwavering support, where concern for each other’s well-being eclipses any material loss. Conversely, the response of a second couple centered on fault-finding and inconvenience, underscoring a different facet of relational dynamics. 

But beyond these individual anecdotes lies a crucial element: gratitude. How does this seemingly simple yet profound emotion shape the trajectory of a marriage? These differing reactions paint a vivid picture, inviting us to ponder which approach yields a happier union.

A Tale of Two Reactions to an Accident

Kim got rear-ended on an off-ramp not far from home. It damaged the car enough that it prevented her from driving it.

She had borrowed Jason’s car that day, because her’s was being repaired. Now they would have to rent a car until hers was ready. She called Jason, and the call went like this:

Kim: “Hi Jason, I’m calling because I got into a car accident…”

Jason: “Oh honey, where are you? Are you hurt?”

Kim: “I was shaken up, but not hurt. At least not that I think…”

Jason told her to wait there, grab the other driver’s information, and he would find a way to get to her. At no point did Jason ask who was at fault, or express concern that his car was badly damaged. His focus was on his wife, her physical and emotional state. He said to her, as they waited for the tow truck:

Jason: “I’m just so grateful that you are not badly hurt.”

Kim’s Experience: A Supportive Response

Kim encountered a car accident and called her husband Jason for help. His immediate concern was her safety and well-being, offering reassurance and support instead of focusing on blame or inconvenience. This caring response demonstrated his prioritization of her emotional state over the car’s damage.

Contrasting Attitude: An Unsatisfying Reaction

Conversely, another couple faced a similar incident, but their response differed significantly.

Across town a similar accident happened but when the wife called home, she was quizzed about the accident, wanting to know who was at fault. Imagine the sound of  annoyance as he mused that now they’ll have to rent a car. “I don’t have a car to come get you, so you’ll have to call an Uber!” the man said.

When this wife shared the news, her husband’s primary concern was to ascertain fault and express annoyance about the situation. He didn’t  offer support or comfort.

Here’s my question: Who do you believe has a happier marriage?

In times like these, we have a choice about what to put first from our minds, and what we will make trivial.

What is gratitude?

One of the challenges inherent in studying gratitude is that gratitude has several different meanings, depending on the object of your gratitude. Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010 described gratitude as “an appreciation of what is personally meaningful and valuable, and indicative of a reflective mental state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.”

Is there a science of gratitude?

Gratitude is highly correlated with well-being (Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Expressing gratitude in relationships contributes significantly to health. An attitude of gratitude can become a habit that can boost your overall happiness by 25%.

The Impact of Gratitude on Mental Health

Gratitude plays a crucial role in mental health. Research suggests that a shift in attention from negative to positive aspects, facilitated by gratitude, can alleviate depression and improve overall well-being. Incorporating gratitude practices in couples’ therapy models has shown clinical effectiveness in addressing issues of depression within relationships.

Studies indicate that feeling appreciated leads individuals to be more responsive to their partner’s needs. Additionally, it’s found that gratitude leads to higher relationship commitment, making couples more likely to stay together.

Gratitude and Depression

A little below 7% of Americans struggle with depression, but in couples therapy, about 40% of the couples have issues with depression with at least one partner. Depression and marital conflict are the two most common presenting problems in mental health today. Recent research indicates that an attitude of gratitude counterbalances depression by channeling the focus of attention from the negative to the positive.

Gratitude. It’s an appreciation of what is personally meaningful and valuable. Often the exhausted nervous system of couples can be healed with a shift in what is noticed, a reframing of what it means, and an awareness of gratitude.

The Relationship Between Gratitude and Gottman’s Approach

Gottman has consistently recruited this science of gratitude to craft powerful interventions that we use during couples therapy intensives. These interventions are designed to increase gratitude in committed couples.

Gottman’s principles emphasize sharing fondness and admiration within relationships, aligning with the essence of gratitude. By acknowledging and valuing each other’s positive attributes and actions, couples practice a form of gratitude that fosters closeness and satisfaction within their partnership.

Gratitude. It’s an appreciation of what is personally meaningful and valuable. Often the exhausted nervous system of couples can be healed with a shift in what is noticed, a reframing of what it means, and an awareness of gratitude.

One homework exercise is to allow couples to practice bringing to mind what they might be grateful for. A truism of cognitive-behavioral therapy is that the human attention is like a muscle. It can be trained and directed.

A mindset

From a neuroscience perspective, we now know that gratitude is part of a larger schema that notices and appreciates the positive. Gratitude has a distinctly different neurological signature than optimism, hope or trust.

How do we process our experience to enhance gratitude? Gratitude is not merely an attitudinal weighing. It’s a broad orientation toward life itself. It first requires directing our attention.

When we focus on noticing a positive change and catch our partner doing something right, a moment of gratitude produces a chemical cascade that acts as a neurological medicine.

How do we make sense of the good things in our lives? How do we decide to encounter the very notion of gratitude?

If we are stuck in Yes…But:

  • We exclude or dismiss what preceded.
  • We cancel, negate, or discount what preceded.
  • It implies that the first issue is subordinated to the second.

But if we stop ourselves and try Yes…And:

  • We include and expand what preceded.
  • We acknowledge what preceded.
  • It can be neutral or positive.
  • Neither issue is subsumed into the other.

The Healing Power of Gratitude

In couples therapy, fostering an attitude of gratitude can significantly impact the relationship’s emotional landscape. By training attention toward noticing positive actions and expressing appreciation, couples can experience an uplifting shift in their dynamic and a notable boost in happiness.

Gratitude heals the heart, brain, and mind.

There are also a vast number of exercises and techniques in literally all couples therapy models designed to enhance gratitude, and they are relatively simple and easy to integrate at home. The therapeutic efficacy of many of these techniques remains, and probably will remain, largely unknown.

Closing thoughts

Ultimately, the “happiness quotient” in a marriage hinges not solely on the absence of conflicts or trials but on the intrinsic practice of gratitude. It transcends individual actions, seeping into the very fabric of our daily interactions. Research, anecdotal evidence, and psychological studies all affirm that expressing and cultivating gratitude fosters not just relationship maintenance but also mental well-being. As we navigate life’s inevitable collisions and triumphs, the tale of two reactions to an accident serves as a compelling reminder: in the dance of relationships, gratitude emerges as the unsung hero, fortifying the foundation of enduring love.


Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257–274.