Many families celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving with family gatherings, special foods (and turkey leftovers), vacations, or visiting a special place. Reliable, healthy patterns add structure and comfort to life. Such customs provide touchstones for connection, travel, eating good foods, and seeing old friends. Our brains love habits, and relationships do too. Unfortunately, there is one unhealthy pattern which interferes with relationship happiness. Once this is overcome, relationships too can provide reliable security, comfort, and empathy.
As a species, through generations of survival in a harsh world we have created a mental and emotional habit of focusing on the negative first. In relationships this surfaces as criticism, often seen when one partner points out what the other did wrong or rehearses the negatives mentally. When you come home at the end of the day, do you find yourself thinking or saying: “Car is parked wrong, dirty boots in front of the door, didn’t pick up milk and bread”? It is important to be able to talk about needs and feelings (although this must be done without blame), but it is more important to create habits of gratitude and appreciation. Relationship researchers John Gottman and his wife Julie found that even during conflict healthy relationships have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments and interactions. This means that your everyday life should have something like 10:1 positive to negative.
It may feel unnatural or awkward to be thanking your partner for everyday things, but the tendency to point out the negative is the more destructive pattern of interaction. In almost 20 years as a marriage counselor I have never seen anyone thank their partner for pointing out what they were doing wrong. Try seeing that as the unnatural interaction. When you focus on what is going well, you are likely to get more of what it is you really want.
Recipe for thanks-giving in relationships:
- Rehearse the Positive: On your drive home, walking into the room, or waking up; consciously rehearse something to compliment your partner on: “Thanks for the hug honey” (even if you initiated it); “You worked hard today,” “Great coffee.”
- Add 3 Thankful Things: Before sleep, when you are cuddling with your partner, (or before you leave for work, when coming home, etc) create a habit of expressing thanks for 3 things in your day (including at least one about your partner).
- Use Humor Sparingly: Humor used well can add to your relationship. However, when trying positive relationship skills one partner may use humor as a way of dealing with nervousness, “Well, at least you didn’t burn the turkey this year.” This could easily misfire. Unless mutually understood, keep to the positive comment. You may very well need to verbalize your own anxiety; naming it is the most direct way: “This is a little hard for me, I haven’t done much of this stuff before so please stick with me as I thank you.”
- Request what you Do Want: If you used to receive nice cards and date nights, try a positive request: “Remember when we went dancing a few years ago? That was really fun; I would love to do that again. How about next Friday?”
- Use Often: Check in with yourself daily and see how close to a 5:1 (or even better, a 10:1) ratio you are.
- Accept a Thanks: If your partner says “thanks” to you, pay attention to it and offer a gesture or word to show you noticed. “You’re welcome” goes a long way.
- Stick with it to create a Habit: It takes about 60 days of daily practice to create a habit. You are creating a muscle-memory in saying, “Thanks” and it will not feel awkward for that long. If you need some coaching to cement a shift in your relationship interactions, book a session with a professional.
- Use with Yourself: Charity begins at home. As with your partner or children, giving thanks is not phony as long as it is specific. Telling yourself, “You nailed it, everyone likes your turkey casserole” is more beneficial than the self-deprecating and dismissive inner voice many people use.
Expressing thanks, even for small things, is a powerful way to feed your relationship. With practice, this can become a daily habit. Try adding some thanks-giving to your plate; second helpings are encouraged.