Would you like to know what makes a happy marriage?
Well… lots of things.
I want to focus on just one though.
What really makes marriage and family happy?
On a Friday afternoon some years ago a man sought my help, desperately trying to stop his wife from leaving him. They had not spoken a word to each other in weeks. When he arrived home from work she locked herself in the bathroom with her phone. She came out once he was in bed and asleep. He told me that she planned on leaving him by the end of the weekend.
“What do I do?”
I never claimed to be a marriage counsellor (or a miracle-worker), but after we spoke, I suggested he find ways to express his gratitude to her. He looked at me like it was a lame suggestion, but since nothing previously had worked he agreed to give it a go.
The following Monday he related the following:
“My wife hid in the bathroom when I arrived home. I wanted to say thanks for something but had no idea what to say. I saw celery in the fridge. She hates celery. I love it. I stood by the bathroom door and called out, “Honey, I saw you bought celery and put it in the fridge. You know I love celery. I wanted to say thank you.”
“She replied it wasn’t for me, but was for a recipe… but I could have some if I wanted. I thanked her again.
“Over the course of the weekend I found several opportunities to offer genuine thanks. She snorted at me, scowled at me, and eventually asked me, ‘What is going on?’ My reply was ‘I don’t tell you I appreciate you enough and I’m changing that.’
“By the end of the weekend, she had softened. We were talking. We can save this marriage.”
Will gratitude save every marriage?
Almost certainly not. But… a recent study published in the journal Personal Relationships indicates that spousal expression of gratitude was the most consistent significant predictor of marital quality. Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes.
The study also found that higher levels of spousal gratitude expressions protected men’s and women’s divorce proneness. Put simply, divorce is less likely when we are grateful for one another. Additionally, women’s marital commitment is strengthened and protected from the negative effects of poor communication during conflict when gratitude is present.
It is easy to be grateful. Just say thanks.
Take a moment to consider the last time you said thanks to your spouse for cleaning, ironing, playing with the children, earning an income, making the lawn look so amazing, cleaning the car, or doing any number of other chores.
When was the last time that you looked into your spouse’s eyes and said ‘thanks for being you’? Or ‘thanks for holding me’? Or thanks for any of those tiny things that go unnoticed so easily?
Appreciation builds relationships.
Sometimes relationships are in distress. Times are tough. Conversations are stilted, strained, and defensive. It may feel too hard. Just like the man I described at the start of this article, it is at these times that gratitude can make the biggest impact. Find something small. Say it like you mean it. If the response is an attack (like, “what are you going on about?”), be soft in your reply. Stay grateful. It changes hearts.
All couples have tough times. All couples go through distress in their relationships. What matters is not so much whether there is conflict – there will be. It’s how we treat each other during that conflict, and even more how we treat each other when there isn’t any conflict. Gratitude protects marriages – and families.