By Mel Koenen, LAMFT
We know that gratitude changes the brain. Wait, you didn’t know that? Check out this article: Gratitude Alters Heart and Brain. FASCINATING stuff, am I right?
It is relatively easy to incorporate gratitude into your everyday life when you think about it for yourself. Sunsets, birds chirping, having enough food to eat are all things that are pretty easy to name. It often becomes much harder in a relationship with another person. After the honeymoon phase ends, those annoying attributes start to pop out. Like when you think to yourself, “I swear if they leave the dishes on the counter one more time…I may just kill them!” Then, before you know it all you can see is a rotten partner that never does anything to help out around the house and you are left wondering why you are in this relationship in the first place. There you are completely carrying the entire household on your back and what are they doing? NOTHING!
So how do we avoid even getting to that point? Thankfulness and gratitude. Time and time again I have had couples come in with the common argument of chores. The couples that notice the most improvement are able to successfully incorporate thankfulness and gratitude into their day to day life. I often ask couples when they see their partner doing a chore if they ever thank them or celebrate with them for accomplishing something? I get looks of bewilderment many times, “no, we don’t celebrate the dishes getting done. I shouldn’t have to thank them or celebrate that they did a required chore.” However, when we start celebrating those little things, soon you will feel a little bit better about those things that haven’t gotten done yet.
I will give you a personal example. When I was in grad school I was also working full-time, my husband was working full-time, and we worked opposite hours so needless to say the house was a disaster- and when I say disaster, I do mean it! I am talking no silverware or dishes left disaster. This was normal at that point because we were surviving not thriving ya’ll. My husband was picking up slack where he could, but some things just weren’t getting done. Now that I’m graduated things are much more consistent, but I would also be lying if I said that this hasn’t happened occasionally even now. However, I don’t think I ever once heard sarcasm from my husband when I did clean, “wow, glad you finally got around to those dishes” or “about time!” All I heard was, “honey, the kitchen looks great” or “great job on the dishes, honey!” What a relief it is to not be chastised for finally getting around to doing something! Verbal affirmations are important for me so I seek encouragement when I need it. All I really need to say is, “Look, did you see I did this?!” And of course, I am met with a “I did, great job!” I do the same things for him. Does all of this magically make me or him like doing mundane chores or house projects? Nope, we still hate them.
What does this change then? It changes our brains to seek out the positives about each other. It helps us assume good intentions when the other spouse forgets to do something or just doesn’t get around to it. Most importantly, when a passive aggressive comment accidentally does pop out somewhere in our relationship, it doesn’t immediately start a fight. What it does do is prompt curiosity about where that comment came from. It eases the startup of that conversation because our ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflict are more balanced.