Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

The Art of Noticing: Putting the “App” in Appreciation

thanks photo

“See?” exclaimed a husband in therapy, “It will never be enough for you.  No matter what I do, you will always want something different or more, so I might as well just give up trying.”

There is a process that I regularly witness between couples in therapy that genuinely saddens me.  What happens is that I will observe one partner really trying to please the other partner, but the efforts are viewed as disingenuous or minimal, so they are disregarded or criticized, at which point the partner gives up.

This phenomenon occurs with both partners in a marriage regularly.  Here’s a typical example:

Sandy was exhausted from caring for her young children, driving them around, and keeping the house picked up.  She was hurt that her husband didn’t make a bigger effort to support her in daily household chores, and that it seemed like he was content to ignore her all night while expecting sex before bedtime.  She was offended that he wanted to be physical with her after seemingly preferring to be alone most of the time.  When she tried to talk about it, he would withdraw by leaving the room or just refusing to engage in conversation.

Her husband, Sam, admitted that he gave up on household chores because, “It’s never up to her standards,” and the criticism he received was painful.  He added that he did reach out for physical connection because it was the only time he felt really accepted in the relationship.

It’s common that after a session of therapy, partners will gain a little more courage to try again.  The problem is that when they do try, their efforts do seem small.  That’s because after years of rejection, making small shifts can feel like enormous risks.  Then, their partners either don’t notice the small efforts, or actively reject the efforts because they are afraid that if they “reward,” the small effort, their partners will think it’s enough and stop there.

So, with the above example, Sam returned to therapy and explained that he volunteered to do household chores without asking, and instead of his wife noticing and expressing gratitude, she asked why he didn’t do a few more things.  In return, Sandy explained that she tried to risk being more physically affectionate with her husband by hugging him when he came home, but that he “pouted,” all night because she didn’t want to have sex.  Thus, both partners experienced more rejection and felt discouraged to continue.

Change can be very tricky between couples, because the two people are so sensitive to each other emotionally.  No one wants to feel like he or she is making efforts to change while the other person doesn’t notice or isn’t trying to change as well.  Both partners want love and acceptance.

It’s important to know that NOTICING is a skill that can be actively expanded and implemented.  Then, people need to realize that APPRECIATING and ENCOURAGING is powerful in priming more change, but nothing will destroy a partner’s desire to try faster than criticism, even if the criticism seems small.  Most people don’t realize the huge impact their criticism has on partner withdrawal and disconnection.

So, why aren’t people better at using encouragement and accepting their partners’ changes instead of criticizing?

  1. They want so much more than their partners are often willing to give up front that they really don’t notice their partners are trying to change.
  2. They are afraid that if they accept the small effort, the partner will think that’s good enough and stop trying.
  3. They are afraid that if they accept the larger effort, it won’t last.
  4. They don’t trust the change, because it may be viewed as manipulation.

Here’s how to implement the art of noticing and appreciating in order to promote change:

Look for and acknowledge ANY change efforts.  People want their efforts to matter.  Many times, I have pointed out, “You see, he’s here right now with you in therapy trying to improve his relationship with you—this is him trying to change.  You are experiencing it right now.  Especially since couples therapy is the LAST place most men want to be.”  Or, “Did you notice her reach out and put her hand on your leg when you were talking about how painful it is when she rejects you physically?  That is her trying to reach out to you and comfort you in a way that you desire.”  When I point this out, most partners acknowledge, “Yes, this is hard for him (or her) and I can see he’s trying.” I can also help them add, “I just get scared that he will stop trying or things won’t ever get better, even though it helps me to know he’s here with me right now.”  This helps the rejected partner understand what is happening more clearly.

Sometimes it’s helpful to think in PARTS.  For example, “There’s a part of me that can see you trying and gets excited that thing might get better, but there’s another part of me that gets afraid it won’t last or this is as good as it will ever get, and that thought is so scary that I want to make more demands.”

Understand SHAPING.  There is a behavioral concept called “shaping,” in which people reward approximations of behavior in order to move someone toward the desired behavior.  It is used a lot in parenting, but it actually applies in all our relationships.  I reject pure behavior therapy as an application for change, because our emotions interact with our behaviors in complex ways, but it is true that acceptance and praise are rewarding, and we are more likely to become approaching and try harder in those circumstances.

Understand that criticism and contempt are more powerful in a toxic way than appreciation, praise and encouragement are in a relationship-building way.  In other words, one line of criticism can wipe out a month’s worth (or more) of genuine effort in seconds.  People give lip service to this, but then behave as if their criticism shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIIFED OR NOT.  For emphasis, I repeat, CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIFIED OR NOT.

Even if you notice and encourage your partner when you see a change, EXPECT RELAPSE into old patterns.  People need to be allowed to get it wrong without being severely punished even if they have been nearly perfect.  Sometimes people won’t try to change, because they are afraid that they won’t be “perfect,” at it and if they aren’t, their partners will flare up (because they do).  Most patterns change like the stock market—a general trend upward with lots of ups and downs in between.

Recognize that NOTICING really is a skill that you can acquire.  If I asked you to watch your spouse’s or child’s behavior and notice what they were doing well, you would be able to tell me.  Everyone knows how to do this but we forget that noticing does take some effort on our part.  It’s rarely natural.  Instead, we tend to view partners through a lens based on an accumulation of interactions over the years, and we don’t notice variations in the present.  Also, undesirable behavior always gets our attention more readily than desired behavior.

It is highly unlikely that your partner will even try to fully meet your expectations until he or she believes that you notice and appreciate his or her efforts.  People need to feel safe from rejection and criticism to take relationship risks.  This is the standard.  Your partner is not an exception.

Lastly, I complement you on finishing this longish article and by doing so implementing a small immediate change to make your relationship better.  See, I noticed!  Did you notice?



Couples, Gratitude, marriage, Romance

5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Marital Fortune with Gratitude

fortune cookie
Copyright: mybaitshop / 123RF Stock Photo

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Leave a note.   Anytime.  Anywhere.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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: