By John Salak —
The holiday season has always been a good time to reflect and be thankful. New research suggests that simply saying thank you to a partner can increase a couple’s satisfaction and commitment. These gestures can also protect couples from the debilitating impact of ineffective arguing and financial stress.
Ultimately, individuals who feel appreciated by their partners have better-functioning relationships that can better withstand a range of short- and long-term stressors, according to Allen W. Barton, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who led the research.
Barton’s team came to its conclusions after a 15-month study that examined the effects of expressing gratitude and perceived gratitude on more than 300 African American couples.
“This study was motivated to understand gratitude in relationships and if it can protect couples from challenges and hardships, be it negative communication or broader factors like financial strain,” Barton said.
“Much of the prior research looked at the relational effects of expressing gratitude, but 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,” he added.
The majority were middle-aged, employed, had an average of three children and were living in small communities in rural Georgia. Barton noted that two-thirds of the couples had joint income levels labeled working poor.
The married couples in the study were together for about 10 years. The unmarried couples lived together for almost seven years.
Barton’s latest work builds on an earlier study Barton led that examined the effects of financial distress on marital quality. It focused on white, middle-aged, and more highly educated couples.
“In the current study, we wanted to examine the effects of both perceived and expressed gratitude and whether perceived gratitude works similarly with a different demographic population,” he said.
His latest study involved the couples surveyed three times about their arguing and conflict resolution, their expressions of gratitude to their partner and their levels of perceived gratitude from their partner. The participants also reported on their current levels of financial strain.
The couples rated their relationship satisfaction levels from perfectly happy to very unhappy. They also rated their relationship stability level.
Saying thank you helps. Individuals with higher levels of expressed and perceived gratitude were more satisfied with their relationship. They also had greater confidence in their future and reported less instability, such as discussions or thoughts about breaking up, than those with lower levels of gratitude.
“Our main hypothesis was that perceived gratitude from one’s partner would have stress-buffering effects. It would protect couples from the declines in relationship quality that typically happen when you have negative communication or higher levels of financial strain,” Barton said. “Expressed gratitude hadn’t been looked at before, so we had no hypotheses with it — our work was more exploratory.”
The higher levels of perceived gratitude also buffered these couples against the stresses of both financial strain and ineffective arguing. The researchers reported that these couples did not exhibit a decline in relationship satisfaction or confidence.
“Even if the couple’s negative communication increased—provided they still felt appreciated by their partner—their relationship quality did not decline as much over time,” Barton explained. “That becomes important because not every couple will be great at communication, particularly when things get heated or intense, or hit a home run with resolving conflicts.”
Admittedly, there is no foolproof way to ensure a partner feels appreciated. The effort, however, is critical to getting the message across.
“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 appreciated or acknowledged and start expressing appreciation for those,” Barton suggested.