The Most Effective Way to Thank Your Significant Other

One fact of long-term relationships is that humans often take their partner for granted. Think of gratitude as a buffer against that.

A heart-shaped trophy
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

It’s so simple that it can be easy to overlook: In the commotion of daily life, people forget to thank their partner for the myriad things they do. During the pandemic, significant others have made even more sacrifices, picked up the slack, or gone outside their comfort zone, putting plenty of romantic relationships through the wringer. Now could be the ideal moment to step back and reassess how you show gratitude for it all.

This might be harder than it sounds. One fact of long-term relationships, in research terms, is habituation—the diminished response to your significant other’s actions over time. In other words: taking your partner for granted. Another challenge is the common inability to notice the everyday ways that loved ones make our life smoother. “We tend to overestimate our efforts [in] a relationship and underestimate the amount of work our partner is contributing,” Allen Barton, assistant professor in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me via email.

Yet when partners acknowledge and appreciate each other, it appears to create a protective effect, according to Barton’s research, that can help buffer couples from negative communication patterns such as being overly critical or conflict-avoidant. Even if couples struggle to communicate, their marital stability can be just as high as partners who navigate conflict well—as long as they maintain high levels of appreciation. In a 2015 study, Barton and a team of researchers found that showing gratitude for your spouse was highly linked to marital quality.

Still other research suggests that having a partner who regularly expresses thanks leads to a virtuous cycle. In romantic relationships, spiraling downward is a common theme: One partner says or does something a bit harsh, and the other retaliates more harshly, creating a race to the bottom. Gratitude, by contrast, works in reverse: If you feel appreciated for your actions, you are more likely to do more nice things for your partner, in turn making your partner likely to perform nice deeds for you—and the cycle continues.

The way you show appreciation also makes a difference. A paper published last year by a group of Hong Kong–based researchers revealed—perhaps unsurprisingly—that perceiving a partner’s gratitude as less sincere harmed men’s marital satisfaction. Other research, out of the University of North Carolina, says that recognizing not only what your partner does, but also who they are, is a superior form of acknowledgment. Instead of thanking them for, say, picking up the groceries, acknowledge the positive traits that the shopping trip expressed, such as your partner’s thoughtfulness in remembering your favorite snack.

An expression of gratitude that highlights how much you gained from a loved one’s action is also more effective than one that highlights what it cost them, says Yoobin Park, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Toronto, who studies well-being in romantic relationships and singlehood. So rather than focusing on how much of a hassle it must have been for your husband to scrub that pile of dinner dishes, try emphasizing the way it allowed you to meet a work deadline or catch up with an old friend who called out of the blue.

Gratitude isn’t a cure-all, however. Although plenty is known about couples with a predisposition to thank each other, researchers are still trying to determine whether getting less naturally grateful couples to engage in these behaviors will be as helpful, says Amie Gordon, an assistant social-psychology professor who directs the Well-being, Health, and Interpersonal Relationships Lab at the University of Michigan. It is important to recognize that severe relationship issues—such as serious emotional or physical abuse—can’t be papered over with superficial appreciation.

A gratitude practice shouldn’t imply forced politeness or tossing around half-hearted thanks when you don’t feel like it. It’s really a guardrail against the human proclivity to take one’s partner for granted. The ultimate aim, Gordon says, is to set a posture of noticing and renoticing the value in your better half. Then, when your genuine appreciation allows you to share that positivity with your partner, capitalize on the moment.