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Why Is It So Hard to Appreciate Your Partner?

Myopia gets in the way of showing gratitude for the ones we love.

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.

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Why Is It So Hard to Appreciate Your Partner?

Yet… But… Still… I want to be appreciated too. The funny part is that she does appreciate me very much, but I am sometimes such an ass that I ask for even more appreciation when doing the basic tasks of parenting. What’s wrong with me?

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

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