How gratitude can heal your relationship

When you're irritated, frustrated, and fighting all of the time, it can be tough to see the good in your partner. That's why a gratitude practice can help heal your relationship - by encouraging you to focus on the things your partner does to support you and love you. It's easy. There's even a free worksheet to help you get started.

You know that inner dialog you have with yourself that never shuts up? The one that tells you all of the things that are wrong with you, all of the ways you aren't good enough?

It's the same voice that also likes to harp on all of the ways your partner is driving you to maximum frustration.

"God, he makes me so mad. He never helps around the house. He spends hours watching sports when I'm trying to race around and manage the house and the kids and dinner. When was the last time he had 20 things on his To Do list? And then he paws at me when I'm exhausted like I owe him something. Sex is the last thing I want to do. He has no idea how much I have on my plate."

You know that dialog because it's something we all do - about ourselves, about our parents, about our siblings and co-workers, and especially about our partners.

It's the Never Do Anything Right voice.

I spent a significant amount of time listening to, and feeding, that voice in my last significant relationship.

We loved each other. We had a pretty good life.

But, I also spent so much of my time feeling unappreciated, over-worked, undesirable, and completely frustrated - largely because of the story I told myself about our day-to-day life.

It was a lonely place to live - inside of my head, telling myself how tired my partner made me all of the time.

John Gottman, one of the leading marriage researchers in the world, has said that healthy, happy relationships tend to have a 5-to-1 positive-to-negative ratio. You can fight, you can get angry, you can turn away from each other, as long as you move back towards positive interactions at some point and fill your tanks again with support.

This concept ties in with a phrase that I've been hearing a lot lately:

What you focus on tends to become the only thing you can see. That whole forest for the trees saying in action.

In other words, where you direct your thoughts and energy is what you end up creating for yourself.

The same is true of the relationship you have with yourself and with others.

When you think an endless stream of negative, harsh thoughts about yourself, you end up feeling worthless, powerless, and hopeless.

And so you drink or eat or numb out on television or go shopping for stuff you don't really need. You self-medicate in some way, often to the point of being compulsive about it.

Which then feeds your inner mean voice and the Never Do Anything Right squad comes out swinging even harder. Because you're proving the voices right, right?

That same cycle happens inside of relationships.

If you spend hours banging your head against the desk, going over and over all of the things your partner doesn't do right, creating a toxic spiral of irritation, then imagine how your body language, your tone of voice, the words you use, and the energy you're directing at your partner will be loaded with negativity the moment you interact with them.

And sex? Don't even think about it.

I was recently talking to a friend who was stuck in an irritation spiral over his partner. He was trotting out all of the things she'd been doing wrong and feeling like crap about their relationship. Should they even stay together? Was it worth it?

He could hear himself being mean to her and admitted as much to me, but couldn't let go of all the stuff that wasn't working.

So, I stopped him and asked, "When was the last time you expressed gratitude for all the things she does right, for all of the ways she supports you in the day-to-day, for all the ways you laugh together?"

He said other than a few thank you's here and there, he hadn't really done that recently. He was worried that if he focused on the good stuff that he was sweeping the bad stuff under the rug.

Gratitude isn't about ignoring or repressing the truth. It's simply about shifting your attention and focusing on what is working so that you can make more of that happen.

If there are major issues in your life, then addressing those openly and honestly is critical to long-term health and happiness. You deserve to be in a relationship where you both feel valued and seen.

It's also incredibly important to make a list of your needs and take a close look at which needs are consistently being met and which ones aren't, then decide if the ones that aren't can get met if you articulate them and ask for them.

But how often have you found yourself thinking little annoyed thoughts about someone one day, and then the next day, and then the next, and suddenly you've been stewing on this tiny little thing for weeks?

Suddenly it feels so enormous you're on the verge of throwing in the towel.

Having a gratitude practice is one of the fastest and easiest ways to break a cycle of negativity.

There are tons of ways to have a gratitude practice, so if you already have one you love, then find a way to work it into your calendar on a regular basis - and make sure it includes ways you're grateful for yourself and for your loved ones.

When you begin focusing on things your partner does well, ways they make you laugh, words they've said that make you feel seen, then your entire experience of your relationship begins to shift.

Suddenly, minor annoyances aren't as irritating. You find it easier to let go of that little squabble instead of stewing on it for days.

It's your responsibility in any relationship to decide whether something is truly a problem that needs to be addressed or not, but it's important to remember that you are imperfect. So is your partner.

By focusing on ways they add to your life, you'll begin to feel less stressed, more supported, and you may even feel a lot sexier in the process.

It's hard to feel sexy when you're treating your partner like a child that needs to be reprimanded. I speak from experience.

It's up to you to ask for what you need in your relationship and in the bedroom.

It's also up to you to treat your partner in a way that facilitates the kind of energy you'd like in that relationship.

You cannot expect your partner to be kind, open, vulnerable, and giving if you're closed down, mean, cruel, and nitpicking all the little ways they're failing you. The same is true if you never openly share about yourself or your feelings.

How can you foster space for both of you to be open and safe?

A therapist that I know has a practice that she does with her partner every single night.

Once they're in bed, ready to wind down for the night, they ask each other to share the best part of their day with the other. Sometimes, the best part of the day was each other. Other days it's far from that, but by asking about each other's experience and having that sharing moment, they find ways to be grateful.

One last thought on gratitude - it's important to be grateful when your partner is vulnerable and shares something with you, even if you don't like what's being shared.

Whether it's a no to having sex tonight or honest feedback about something you did that caused them pain, thanking your partner for taking that risk, and acknowledging that they've done something scary, is one of the fastest ways to build resilience and courage into your connection.

I made a little gratitude worksheet for you to help you get started. (<-- Click that link to get it.) If you like it, be sure to sign-up for my newsletter because I like sending special little tidbits to my subscribers.

What is something your partner is really good at that you want to thank them for this week? Comment below and let's start a gratitude chain.

Work with me

If you're ready to find ways to express yourself in your relationship...

  • Maya Zecic

    I love this. I am sharing it on my personal FB in hopes a family member that is struggling in the relationship with this. It’s crazy reading this and only thinking about him, it’s like you sat down with him and interviewed him. Thank you. I am following.

    • Thank you for sharing it, Maya. It’s so easy for us to get trapped, and then everything starts feeling yucky or toxic. I hope this exercise gives him a little hope, or gives him clarity on what needs to come next. Best wishes!

  • Bryony

    This is really helpful. I find it so easy to get overwhelmed with the problems that I feel I’m always on the look out for them. The ‘what you focus on grows’ line really struck me. I’m also working through counselling atm to try and get my own inner dialog to be less destructive but I probably need to try and practise those techniques when thinking about others too. I’m going to try and go through the gratitude sheet to see if that helps, thanks for the post and resources 🙂

    • Yes, Bryony! That being on the lookout for red flags and issues can take so much away from what actually is. Of course, part of the issue is that when we notice genuine issues, we tend to ignore them out of fear. But then we zero in on things that often aren’t deal-breakers because we’re afraid of missing the deal-breakers.

      Have fun with the gratitude sheet. Try doing it weekly for a few weeks and see if that creates some new patterns and observations! Good luck. 🙂

  • lorie eichert

    This was exactly what I needed to read today-thank you! We celebrated 18 years of marriage this weekend. I was pouting around yesterday because “he” didn’t do anything to make it special-being honest-other than making the hotel room reservation-neither did I. This mirrors the statement in the blog of “if you’re so full of pain and self-condemnation, so shut down, don’t feel safe enough to express it, maybe don’t know how to”…and all that’s in your head, heart, and body-language…no wonder there was no magic…

    • Lorie – this is so familiar to me. And how beautiful that you noticed how you BOTH didn’t step outside the day to do special stuff. That is a terrific realization. Also, congrats on 18 years!! Here’s to 18 more, full of joy and passion. 😉

  • So true! Gratitude makes for a happy relationship. My husband and I ask each other what we are grateful for everyday.

    Gratitude can help us shift our attention to what someone has done instead of what they haven’t done. It’s easy because I know many of the contributions I think are important to my relationship – my husband didn’t see at first because they weren’t important to him (aka cooking a meal every night). And vice versa, my husband would do things that weren’t that important to me. But by using gratitude we have been able to appreciate eachothers contributions.

    • I love how you talk about being blind to each other’s contributions. SO TRUE. I love that you’ve used gratitude as a way to bridge that blind spot.