Theres’ something I love about Chinese restaurants, besides the fact that they are open on Thanksgiving if I feel too lazy to cook (That’s a joke–for my readers who have expressed dismay that I would desecrate the American holiday thusly). Even though I have become more cynical over the years, I have to admit that I still get a thrill over the expectation of opening a new fortune cookie. I think it’s the possible irony I might uncover, or the spot-on insights that make you glance over your shoulder like you’re being watched (or maybe that’s just the paranoia talking). It might be the fact that it reminds me of my childhood and fun memories of visiting China Town, even if fortune cookies are really an American tradition. No matter the outcome, it’s an end-of-the-meal ritual that my husband and I look forward to completing any time we go out for Chinese.
I have kept a few of our previously uncovered “fortunes,” for their amusing, pithy statements.
I still remember when I laughed out loud as I read the piece of paper that said, “You are always entertaining and delightful,” to my husband and added, “Wow, honey….it knows me,” with sarcasm, and my husband answered, “Yes, it does,” without sarcasm, because he was being kind. When I taped it on the bathroom mirror and said, “Just so you’ll remember this when you’re mad at me,” he left it up, because that’s the kind of husband he is.
Once, when he opened one that read, “A photo doesn’t capture your charm,” I wondered out loud if someone back in the kitchen had purposely prepared that one for him, because it was so true. I hung it up next to mine.
Yet another fortune is associated with a memory of my husband laughing a little too loudly when he read the printed words from my cookie out loud, “Be willing to admit that you may be wrong. You’re only human.” Well, they can’t all be winners.
A few nights ago, my husband walked in with a fortune cookie and announced that he had been saving it since lunch that day to open it up with me. When he broke it open, we both started laughing because it was empty. “Well, that’s either a really bad sign, or a really good sign,” I said, “I guess we get to design our own fortune.” There is actually a lot of truth in that statement, and I believe experiencing good fortune starts with gratitude.
Gratitude has been a popular subject of happiness research in the last decade, and its protective mental and even physical health benefits are widely reported. As a therapist, I have encouraged many clients to actively identify, label and record daily sources of gratitude. What may be less frequently studied, however, are the overt benefits of gratitude in relationships. Gratitude is actually one important pathway to relationship enhancement.
It makes sense that expressing appreciation in marriage would either be associated with higher marital satisfaction, or would increase positive feelings in the recipient. This is true, and in both cross-sectional and longitudinal research, there seems to be a robust recursive relationship between expressing gratitude and marital happiness.
What is more compelling to me is the couples research showing that the person who expresses gratitude is benefitted as much or more than the person receiving expressions of gratitude. In longitudinal studies, there is a difference between cases in which partners just identify partner appreciation but don’t express it, and those who do express it. In short, expressing gratitude not only increases positive feelings but commitment to a relationship for the person who expressed the gratitude.
In other words, expressing gratitude (unless you are being sarcastic and fake and a complete jerk the rest of the time) will help YOU feel better about your relationship.
The more you express appreciation, the more likely you are to invest in a relationship, and the more likely your spouse will feel better and increase their responsiveness to you. Increased responsiveness helps build relationship security.
So, can I leap to the conclusion that the more you express gratitude to your spouse (without smothering him/her), the less likely you are to end up in my office? I don’t know definitively, but I can safely posit the notion.
Here are 5 simple ways to express gratitude:
- Make a list of qualities you appreciate and verbalize them to your spouse. I have on occasion had couples complete this task in a marital therapy session, and most of the time, the energy in the room literally shifts. There is something powerful about both hearing what your spouse appreciates about you in general and in remembering and expressing what you appreciate about your spouse.
- Leave a note. Anytime. Anywhere.
- Notice small sacrifices and verbalize them. Emphasis on the word small. Sometimes after grandiose gestures we focus more on how our actions are returned. Keeping score is a marriage killer.
- Tell your kids in front of your spouse. I’m always preaching about telling your kids how amazing your spouse is; I stole this from my husband because he’s so good at it. I wrote a post about this on my blog.
- Get creative. Write expressions of gratitude on a note and put it in a fortune cookie. Write it in the top of the peanut butter jar with a toothpick (my husband has totally done that). Write a note on the bathroom mirror with lipstick. Write a note on the shower with soap. Write a note on the car window or windshield with markers. Write a note in the dust on the counter (maybe pre-emptively thanking your spouse for dusting?). Find a song that expresses gratitude and play it. If you want a throwback to junior high, write it in the palms of your hands (what, you didn’t do that in junior high?) Be fun!
Gratitude helps you identify the fortune that has been right in front of you the whole time. It is a powerful tool in strengthening couple relationships for both parties.
In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, it would be fun to start a couple’s gratitude journal, in which you both write down for each other things you appreciated about him/her that day. My husband and I have done it. It is really fun, and takes so little time.
Just in case my husband can’t think of anything to write about me that day, I have reminded him that as a prompt, he can start with, “You are always entertaining and delightful,” which is still taped up in my room. By the way, I am GRATEFUL that he has had the sense of humor to leave it on display. I better go tell him.
To read abstracts of a few relevant research articles, you can click here: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/03/01/0956797610364003.abstract