When Relationships Get Rocky, 'Thank You' Really Helps

Study: Gratitude has protective effects against poor communication, financial stress
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 24, 2022 8:00 AM CST
When Relationships Get Rocky, 'Thank You' Really Helps
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/fizkes)

Gratitude may be the best gift you can give your partner this holiday season, or so suggests a recent study that looked at the impact gratitude has on relationships. A team led by Allen W. Barton of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign spent 15 months studying 316 African American couples, most middle-aged and living in rural Georgia, and the majority with joint incomes that fell below 150% of the federal poverty level. The question Barton wanted to explore, per a press release: whether gratitude "can protect couples from challenges and hardships, be it negative communication or broader factors like financial strain." He looked at two types of gratitude—"expressed," meaning gratitude to one's partner, and "perceived," meaning the gratitude from one's partner.

Over the course of the study, the couples were asked three times about expressed and perceived gratitude, their arguments and financial strain, and the quality of their relationship: how happy they were with it, how stable they felt it was, and how confident they were they would remain together. It turned out perceived gratitude is where the "protective effects" come into play. More specifically, perceived gratitude acts as a buffer against things like financial strain and poor or negative communication. Couples with higher levels of perceived gratitude "did not exhibit as strong of declines in relationship satisfaction or confidence, or the increases in instability that we typically see" with those kinds of stressors, per Barton.

"That becomes really important, because not every couple is going to be great at communication," says Barton. And the protective effect of perceived gratitude was felt in both the moment that the respondent felt appreciated by their partner and across time. Barton notes that no protective effects were observed for increased levels of expressed gratitude. The findings "underscore the importance of interpersonal gratitude for romantic relationships," per the study, which was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. As the Chicago Sun-Times puts it, "'Thank you' could save 'I do.'" Barton recommends being sincere with one's compliments and asking your partner whether they feel unappreciated in any areas. (More discoveries stories.)

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