My wife and I had a fight last week about appreciation. I asked her to “show some appreciation” for some of my childcare activities, then she asked me to “show some appreciation” for everything she does, then we started arguing about who deserves more appreciation. For the record, as much as I try to help with everything related to running our household (and I sincerely do— you can ask my wife), she does far more than I do and deserves far more appreciation.
Long after we forgave each other for the squabble (but while I was still beating myself up about all of this), I started thinking about why it’s so hard to appreciate your partner. I have some ideas that I want to share. First, what is appreciation? It’s the recognition of the good qualities about someone or something. To appreciate someone is to let them know that you value them and everything they do for you— big and/or small. Appreciation also can be defined as the act of showing gratitude. As a psychological construct and positive emotion, gratitude is quickly gaining a lot of research attention, and some of this attention has focused on relationships.
MORE: Ways to Express Gratitude
For example, in a recent study, Sara Algoe and colleagues showed that everyday gratitude—that is, showing appreciation for all that your partner does for you— can be a powerful force for relationship growth. Specifically, for both men and women, the expression of gratitude on one day was associated with increases in relationship connection and satisfaction the following day. This effect held for the giver (benefactor) and receiver of a thoughtful gesture. The time-based effects are particularly exciting: Sow the seeds of love with gratitude today and reap the relationship rewards tomorrow. The authors concluded that gratitude might act as a “booster shot” for relationship health.
Any established couple—especially couples with young children—will tell you that it is sometimes quite hard to express gratitude, and it is often quite hard to do it well. This is the question I was trying to answer after the fight with my wife: Why is it sometimes so hard to express gratitude toward our partners? I have a single word answer for this question: myopia. Humans are myopic. Without mental effort to view the larger contexts in which we live, most of us will focus on what is happening in our own heads. In some respects, this is the essence of the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to see others’ behaviors as dispositional (e.g., “That dude just threw trash out his car window because he’s a total pig.”) while simultaneously seeing our own behavior as more situational (e.g., “I just threw the trash out my car window because the smell was going to make me sick if I kept it in the car all day.”). We are really good at seeing ourselves in a very complex and intricate way, and sometimes we can be very bad about seeing others in this way as well.
COLUMN: Fundamental Attribution Error, Explained
What does this have to do with appreciation and gratitude? Everything. It’s often difficult to see another person’s kind, thoughtful, loving and caring gestures because we tend to focus on what is happening inside of our own heads. Being grateful begins awareness, and awareness hinges on stepping beyond what’s happening inside your own skull. It can be difficult to show gratitude because we are so preoccupied with what’s happening in our own heads that we miss the chance to show our partners appreciation.I mentioned that it can be especially hard to express gratitude when you have children. Children, especially young kids, make serious demands on your mental space. For instance, every week my wife does something incredibly nice for me: She takes care of the kids early on Sunday mornings while I go for a long bike ride. The instant I walk in the door, all sweaty and messy, I start thinking about what I need to do with the kids—how to help her, how to manage any emerging problems or physically hazardous situations, who needs to get fed, go pee, etc., etc.
QUIZ: What’s Your Relationship Style?
Once the myopia of childcare sets in on me, I can lose sight of the fact that my wife has been incredibly generous providing me the freedom I want to exercise. From there, I sometimes let the chance to appreciate her slip away. This type of situation can occur when anything—work, future emails, transportation needs, researching a new iPad— competes for the same mental space needed to notice and recognize your partner’s nice gestures.
There’s a slightly more insidious problem here as well, and this also has to do with myopia. Because we can become so self-focused it is sometimes difficult to see your partner’s actions as deserving of appreciation. I’ll call this sad myopia because it is fairly sad when you cannot see beyond your own self-absorbed world to notice all nice things your partner is doing for you. But, it can happen to all of us and this is precisely what happened to me last weekend. It was not intentional, but I was stressed and saw my own efforts as Herculean and deserving of much appreciation. I became too “me focused” to see outside of my own (temporarily) warped view of how much I was doing for our family. When sad myopia continues unchecked, there is no hope for giving your relationships the booster shot of gratitude because one or both people are stuck on how much they are doing and how much they are not being appreciated.What’s the solution? Awareness. Other focus. Empathy. And, practice. Myopia is natural and helps us a great deal. It takes practice to get beyond yourself to see the all the beautiful things your partner is doing for you. We can all do it if we try.
COLUMN: Hope, Gratitude & Love
One last thought. I did not entitle this column “How to Appreciate Your Partner” because I think we all know how to do that. For most of us, it’s really simply: Say thank you, do a thoughtful thing, drop a compliment, take on more than you require in exchange, plan an exciting event, give a massage, etc., etc. The problem is not doing the act of gratitude. The problem is why we do not do it more often and what gets in our way. I’ve tried to tackle the larger issue head-on in this column. I hope find these ideas helpful.