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How to Fix an Unhappy Marriage by Giving Thanks

November kicks off the holiday season with high expectations for festive times with your friends and family. Thanksgiving is the holiday when I feel grateful for the people in my  life. It lifts my spirits and increases my feelings of well-being and happiness. If your marriage is already happy, gratitude can make it stronger. If you’re struggling and want a strategy for how to fix an unhappy marriage, read on.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reflecting on the meaning of gratitude, and in particular, about how feeling and expressing gratitude can help couples feel connected and build happier marriages.

The practice of gratitude

I first learned about being grateful from my father when I was about seven. After Sunday supper with my Irish immigrant grandparents, as we headed back to our house in the suburbs on a small highway in my father’s ‘59 Ford Fairlane, we’d pass by a couple of housing projects and run-down multi-family housing. Every time, my father would point out how lucky we were to live in our own nice house in a safe town. Always remember that, he would tell me.

In my teens, my father taught me to be grateful for the people who helped me: teachers, grandparents, family friends — never mentioning himself, curiously. Then, as an adult, my understanding of gratitude gradually expanded.

These days I do my best to try to appreciate people for not only what they do, but also, for who they are. The way I’d admire a rose in full bloom or a maple tree with crimson leaves in autumn or the sea lit up by a harvest moon. I am better at this some days than others and work toward progress and not perfection.

Grateful couples are happier and feel closer

Researchers in the field of positive psychology have discovered that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness and optimism. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

According to the research of Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, gratitude is a “relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.” When we perceive that others appreciate us, we value our relationship with them.

Related research by Sara Algoe and colleagues, found that grateful couples feel more satisfied in their relationship and closer to each other. Moreover, grateful couples are more likely to stay in their relationships according to the research of Aime M. Gordon, Ph.D. a social-personality psychologist at the University of California. San Francisco.

How does gratitude help a couple feel more connected and happier ?

Dr. Gordon published a series of studies which explored the question of how gratitude helps couples. The research findings show that gratitude helps a relationship thrive by promoting a “cycle of generosity”. That is, one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that convey gratitude to each other and promote commitment to their relationship. This cycle of generosity is self-perpetuating, kind of like how falling water generates energy.

Gratitude and the endless feedback loop of positive benefits

In a nutshell, the researchers found that in moments of gratitude people recognize the value in their partner. What we value we want to hold onto, which motivates us to be a good partner to maintain the relationship. This dynamic sparks a positive cycle: the experience of gratitude evokes a stream of good feelings which in turn seem to promote behaviors that help people feel more connected and and happier.  

For example, one study found that people who felt grateful to their partners were observed as being better listeners. In turn, a person with a partner that listens will usually feel appreciated and valued. The appreciated partner is more apt to express gratitude to the listening partner. A cycle of generosity is sparked by the grateful person who listens and generates a flood of positive emotions. Both grateful partners focus on maintaining and protecting the relationship that makes them feel so good.

Gratitude helps fix an unhappy marriage.

Gratitude can make a good relationship great and help fix an unhappy marriage. One of the most common reasons for an unhappy marriage is because one or both partners does not feel valued or appreciated. Another key reason for marital unhappiness is people don’t know how to communicate without fighting.

Of course, it is important to distinguish unhappy relationships from unhealthy relationships. Being grateful that an emotionally abusive partner doesn’t call you names for 24 hours or a chronic liar tells you the truth is not going to stop the damaging behavior. Physically or emotionally abusive and highly volatile relationships require serious professional intervention.

Six practical ideas to promote gratitude in your marriage that you  can start right away:

  1. Gratitude Journal.

    Shhh it’s a secret! Every day for a year, write a reason you are grateful for your partner in a gratitude journal or on sticky notes that you collect in a box. Give the journal or box to your partner on their birthday or your anniversary. A daily practice will help you feel gratitude every day.

    Even though you’re on a secret mission, your partner will feel the gratitude vibe and hopefully vibe it back. A daily spark of gratitude is all you need to  light the fire. The gratitude journal will be a gift that keeps on giving by keeping gratitude cycling in your relationship.

  2. Thank your partner everyday.

    Thank your partner for something every day. It can be for completing a chore, for making you happy, for marrying you, or for their sense of humor or generous spirit. Thank them and be grateful for what they do, and even more importantly, for who they are. Thank them for doing chores even if the chore is their job and you expect them to do it. The point is to show that you notice and appreciate them and the mundane tasks may even feel easier.

  3. Compliment.

    Give your partner compliments on their appearance, cooking, strategic thinking, keen wit, bright insights, good nature — both in private and in public. Compliments and words of appreciation in the presence of others are worth their weight in gold.

  4. Listen.

    Really, really listen. When your partner speaks, lean in, and make eye contact (ahem… put down the device). Respond thoughtfully in ways that show you heard and appreciate what they are saying.

  5. Touch.

    Appreciative couples also use touch. Holding hands, hugging, a stroke on the arm , a shoulder rub, or a pat on the leg go a long way.

  6. Jumpstart the cycle and start to fix an unhappy marriage.

    You don’t need to sit idly by when you occasionally feel unnoticed or neglected. Instead, spark the feel-good cycle of gratitude by being grateful or showing appreciation. Do it even when you are longing to get it. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you put in motion.

The secret to gratitude in marriage is practice. Practice gratitude consistently until it becomes a habit. Gratitude is one of the best ways to fix an unhappy marriage. You’ll be delighted when the cycle of generosity kicks off. You’ll feel more goodness and love flow in your relationship and over time you’ll be happier.

Remember: “It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us joyful”. David Steindl-Rast

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