The Importance of Gratitude in Your Marriage Learn how and why you should give each other gratitude year-round. BY DR MICHELLE GANNON
Our brains are wired to have the negative experiences stick, but we can do the same with positives if we try.
As Thanksgiving approaches, we are reminded of the importance of being thankful and grateful. However, in my clinical work as a psychologist and couples therapist, I hear examples every day of people who feel unappreciated and taken for granted by their spouse. Also, many people focus on what they do not have in their relationships versus what they do have. Why is it so hard for us to practice an attitude of gratitude and positivity—especially in our marriages? One reason may be that scientists have found that the brain has a negativity bias. We tend to have Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones, so we often dismiss the positive aspects of our marriages while vividly remembering the negative ones.
Last week, I attended a seminar on Building Gratitude with Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Rick Hanson at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley. I really appreciated Rick Hanson’s perspective that we all have the innate capacity to feel good, even though the scientists report this negativity bias of our brains. Dr. Hanson, my friend and author of "Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom" suggests we actively overcome this negativity bias and, "Take in the good" several times per day because "Neurons that fire together, wire together." The more we take in the good, the more our brain will change for the better.
Interesting perspective, but how do we actually do that?
According to Dr. Hanson, the concept of "taking in the good" can be quite simple. Let positive facts become positive experiences. Let yourself feel good if you get something done, if someone is nice to you or if you notice a good quality in yourself. Savor the positive experiences. Really let them in. This practice can apply to our relationships as well. Notice when your spouse does or says something nice to you and notice when you say or do something nice for them. Now think about it. Let yourself feel good about the positive feeling you have for him or her.
Dr. Emmons recommended that we all write in gratitude journals, especially if being grateful does not come naturally. Write down three to five things that you are grateful for. He reports that it does not matter if you write in your gratitude journal every morning or one time per week. You can write your blessings in a pretty journal or on a scrap of paper—how you do it does not matter. Just do it. Notice what you feel positive and thankful for. Dr. Emmons says that gratitude allows the celebration of the present, blocks toxic emotions, increases resiliency against stress and improves social ties and self-worth. He also shares many research findings that suggest we really can develop gratitude over time. Think of gratitude as an attitude and way of life. I like to think of cultivating gratitude as a new habit to actively practice. The structure of writing down what we are grateful for seems to help us look through the lens of gratitude more throughout our day.
When couples express gratitude for each other, they feel more loving and accepting. Research by Dr. John Gottman has found that happily married couples have the magic ratio of 5:1 positive to negative interactions. For every negative interaction, disagreement or hurt feeling, they have five positive, loving, caring or playful interactions to counterbalance it.
What is your magic ratio these days? Do you have significantly more positive interactions with your spouse than negative? Maybe it is time to increase the positivity by focusing more on what you do have in your relationship and what you love and appreciate about your partner.
I am reminded of an experience that I had many years ago. My husband and I were presenting at a conference and I met a lovely 70-year-old gentleman who told me that he had been happily married for 50 years. I asked him what was his secret to success? He immediately answered that when he was married for one week, his new wife came to him and asked him, "What are three things that you love about me?"
He answered, "You are beautiful, smart and a great cook."
The next week, she asked the same question. He gave the same answer and she responded, "You already told me those three things. Tell me three new things." So he did—week-after-week, year-after-year. He claimed that every week for 50 years he has given her three new compliments or expressions of appreciation and gratitude.
I was impressed. My husband jokes that he must have slept with a thesaurus. I think this couple is a great example of a husband and wife who are practicing gratitude in a committed way. In our family, on birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s and Father’s Day we tell each other what we appreciate about the person we are celebrating.
Studies have found that gratitude can lead to more healthy behaviors, more positive relationships, reduced blood pressure, better sleep, happier mood and more pro-social behaviors. When people are grateful, they can feel both calm and energetic, while recognizing their blessings.
When I focus on the positives in my marriage, I do feel more loving, happy and connected. My marriage is not perfect and I do not necessarily ignore the negatives. I just choose to put more emphasis on all of the positive experiences that we have in our life together.
Please join me in building gratitude in your relationships too. Wishing you a warm and happy holiday season.
Dr Michelle Gannon is a San Francisco-based psychologist specializing in relationships, women's health and wellness. She is an individual and couples therapist in private practice in San Francisco for over 20 years, couples workshop founder and media expert. She specializes in relationship issues, self esteem, health and wellness, work/life balance, communication, intimacy and sexuality, parenthood and life transitions. She also leads award winning Couples Workshops: Marriage Prep 101 for engaged, newlywed and seriously dating couples with her husband, Dr. Patrick Gannon. Dr. Michelle Gannon has been featured on CBS Early Show, The Kathleen Show, Sex with Emily Show, Evening Magazine TV, Ronn Owens Radio, TIME, PEOPLE, San Francisco Chronicle, SF Gate and many more. She blogs at www.DrMichelleGannon.com and www.MarriagePrep101.com. Dr. Gannon lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two sons, dog and cat. She is delighted to be an expert on Hitched.