How to Build a Strong Relationship: Express Gratitude

Want a quick way to strengthen your relationships? Say “thank you.”

Expressing gratitude has captured the interest of many social psychologists, and they’ve shown its powerful effects across a range of studies and types of relationships. In essence, gratitude is when you acknowledge and appreciate the things that are valuable and meaningful to you.

bigstock-express-your-gratitude--advic-79583221_webIn general, gratitude is good for you. Research has shown that feeling grateful is related to optimism, physical health, positive mood, better sleep, and feeling more connected to other people. Gratitude is also related to reduced materialism and overall satisfaction with life.

When it comes to relationships, though, expressing gratitude can be especially influential. Some research, for example, has shown that gratitude can be a key ingredient in successful relationships, especially as couples transition into married life. Other research has focused on married couples and how they perceive their divisions of labor. This research shows that when husbands express more gratitude for a wife’s work, the wife perceives that the division of labor is more fair.

Recently, research has uncovered a few more specific reasons why you might take to saying “thank you” for things you truly appreciate.

Gratitude and Positive Relationship Perceptions

In one study, Nathaniel Lambert and his colleagues looked at the relationship between gratitude and what’s called “communal strength.” This is just how responsible you feel for the other person’s well-being. When there’s really high communal strength in a relationship, for example, one person is willing sacrifice a lot personally in order to benefit his or her partner.

They asked a bunch of people how often they express gratitude toward their romantic partner or their partner in their most important close relationship. Six weeks later, they sent a follow-up survey to everyone to ask about their relationships. Specifically, they measured the communal strength the person felt about their relationship.

The more people said they expressed gratitude in their relationships, the stronger they said there relationships were six weeks later.

Although this result is interesting and spans multiple points in time, it’s still a case of correlational research. How do we know that actively expressing gratitude leads to stronger relationships?

Does Gratitude Lead to Strong Relationships?

In a separate study, Lambert and his colleagues asked participants to complete a simple friendship exercise for three weeks. There were three different exercises, and the one each person received was decided at random. A third of the participants were given a basic, control exercise: pay attention to what you do for the next three weeks. Nothing special there.

Another third of the participants were told to actively express more gratitude for their friend over the next three weeks. The instructions went exactly like this:

For the next 3 weeks I would like you to focus on trying to go the extra mile to express gratitude to your friend. Between now and Thursday, please do something you wouldn’t normally do to express this gratitude verbally or through writing (e.g., perhaps write an e-mail, a kind note, tell him/her how much you appreciate something specific  that  he/she  does).  Make sure to record or remember what you did so that you can report about it on Thursday.

The third group was really important, too. These participants were asked to simply think about how grateful they were for their friend. They didn’t express gratitude—they just thought it.

At the end of the three weeks, the friendships of those who actively tried to express more gratitude got stronger, compared to both of the other groups. Importantly, that’s true even when the control group was thinking about gratitude more. The secret, it seems, is actually expressing it.

Gratitude and Comfort Voicing Relationship Concerns

relationshipAnother benefit of expressing gratitude is that it seems to open the doors for voicing critical relationship concerns. Openness in voicing these concerns is important for successful relationships, and gratitude may be something that facilitates this openness.

In one study, researchers gave a group of people friendship exercises like the ones described above. Some had to express gratitude more, some had to just think grateful thoughts more, and some had to just think about their daily activities.

Three weeks later, not only did the people who expressed more gratitude end up seeing their friends more positively, but this positive view was also associated with being more comfortable voicing relationship concerns. As before, this is true even compared to the people who had been just thinking grateful thoughts for those three week.

Thank You For Reading This

If there’s one thing to take away from all of this, it’s to express more gratitude! Whether it’s a close friendship or a romantic partner, the benefits of saying thank you are clear. A relationship in which partners acknowledge and express gratitude for each other’s work is one marked by communal strength and openness.

So give it a try! You’ll be thankful that you did.

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