Why “Thankful Season” Should Last All Year Long in Your Relationship

It’s thankful season! Each year, we gather around and one-by-one share what we’re grateful for. We likely put more thought into what we appreciate on that one day than we do in the entire year leading up to it. We often say something like “I’m thankful for my partner and the life we’ve created,” and it stops there. Gratitude, though, isn’t just found in the big things – it’s in the small gestures, the little, every-day moments, and isn’t something we should reserve just for the month of November. 

My partner and I moved in together relatively quickly for many valid reasons. Our blissful honeymoon phase, though, was abruptly interrupted with arguments about things like where the coffee pot should go. In reality, it wasn’t about the coffee pot at all. It was about how we stopped appreciating those little things about each other and started noticing the things that were irritating, frustrating, or difficult. Those things, then, became our primary focus – cue all the bickering. For our first ever anniversary, we decided that we needed to make a shift. We challenged ourselves to write down one thing we were grateful for about each other on a sticky note and stick it in a jar…EVERY. SINGLE. DAY…for a whopping 90 days, and then at the end, we’d open them all together. Initially, it felt tedious. It felt like just one more thing on the to-do list. After a while, though, I looked forward to the notes, and noticed myself actually looking for things to appreciate about him – I would catch myself wondering what I was going to write for the day, considering each small (or big) thing he did that I valued – this is something I did NOT do before then. That Thanksgiving, I answered that “what are you thankful for?” question differently – I answered it with thoughtfulness and meaning rather than some general, broad answer.  I remember days that I could think of so many small things that I couldn’t figure out which one to write on the note – I just had so many things that I appreciated for that one day – things that I would never have noticed before our little challenge…how he waited for me while skiing after that one steep slope that always freaks me out rather than zooming off like I know he wanted to, how he puts all my dinner items on separate plates because he knows how much I hate when my food touches, how he puts my favorite coffee mugs where I can reach them on our shelf in the kitchen…we don’t fall in love for one big reason. Similarly, relationships typically don’t end for one big reason. It’s all that small stuff that matters and shapes how we view each other. I’m not sure that we’d still be together if we didn’t make that change. Choosing what you focus on now directly shapes the fate of your relationship in the future.

I still carry that lesson with me – I look for gratitude in every single moment, with my partner and in other aspects of my life. Gratitude is a way of being – it’s a total lifestyle. Because gratitude is a habit that you form over time, it can’t be done overnight. The effort is worth it, though. Other than completely transforming your relationship, it also improves our physical health, helps us sleep better, reduces stress hormones, and even changes the neural structure of our brain (1). We tend to lose what we don’t use, and strengthen what we do. Because of this, gratitude becomes a habitual, regular part of your life. When we yell the “F word” at the top of our lungs every time we make a silly mistake, we do it more, and more, and more…versus if we choose to laugh off the small human errors we make, we laugh them off more, and more, and more. When we’re able to do this for ourselves, we are able to do it for our partner. When your partner makes a small mistake, do you feel yourself get heated immediately? Or do you laugh it off with them, connecting with them on a human level? Gratitude can offer us a sort of a detox from toxic or unpleasant emotions, and completely transform the way we interact with the world. Gratitude softens you – it makes you that safe spot for your partner to land, allows you to be that “welcome home” feeling for your partner, shifts your focus to that glass being half full, and offers you a free, natural, magical super vitamin to enhance your happiness on both good and bad days. Imagine a life where you naturally noticed all those amazing little moments with your partner rather than hyperfocusing on that one irritating thing all day – there is much more understanding and compassion in a relationship where gratitude exists. Practice gratitude every day, every moment – not just on Thanksgiving.

Signs you need to make gratitude a habit – 

  • You can more easily recall the things your partner has done that upset you than the things your partner does that you appreciate.
    • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – our brains are wired for survival, NOT for happiness. Holding onto the things that your partner has done that have hurt you may be a protective measure. Recognizing negative or toxic patterns isn’t a bad thing – you need to be able to notice if your relationships are healthy. I’m not suggesting that your partner gets a free pass by you ignoring their mistakes and only focusing on the good. Relationships are not either good or bad – there is good and bad within every relationship. You can acknowledge and address issues while also practicing gratitude.
      • How to practice gratitude when your partner falls short: Let’s say that one of my partner’s chores is taking out the trash twice a week, and he keeps forgetting. I can handle that a couple of ways – I can say something like “I can’t believe you keep forgetting – you’ve forgotten for the past three weeks, and it’s absolutely ridiculous,” or I can approach the situation with understanding, and voice appreciation – “I know this is one of those things that’s easy to forget and I value you taking this chore on – would you mind setting a reminder on your phone to take care of the trash? I’d really appreciate it”. Which one do you think they’ll be more receptive to? Which one do you think deescalates the situation rather than escalating it? Voicing appreciation even in the tough times is the slight change needed to strengthen you as a team.
  • You find yourself appreciating something only after a loss, scare, or hardship.
    • They say we don’t know what we have until we lose it. Unfortunately, that’s often the case. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Back when we were just dating, my partner would cook these elaborate meals for me…often. Of course I would thank him, but I didn’t put much thought into just how much he did for me – the grocery store stresses him out, but he went anyway, carefully choosing the right ingredients for our meals, then returning to his house where he had about seven roommates, cleaning off dishes, pots, pans, silverware…everything that was constantly dirty (because 7 college age guys living in one house) just to have a nice meal prepared for me after I got out of class. After we graduated college and life got busier, he stopped. Initially, I was frustrated. He set a precedent, and it’s what I expected. I didn’t give him the appreciation he deserved. It took me realizing that life looks differently now, and now I can appreciate how he will pick up my favorite food from my favorite restaurant on his way home from work, instead.
      • How to practice gratitude before you lose it: Thoughtfulness. Depending on the situation, think about your partner’s effort, what your partner is going through, how your partner is feeling, and extend thankfulness for all of the small things and all of the big things. Maybe your partner experienced a health scare – in the past, maybe you wouldn’t have valued those “see you later” kisses in the morning, and now, you hold your partner a little closer. In the famous words of Andy Bernard from The Office – “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good ol’ days before you’ve actually left them”. Good news – you can value each stage, each moment, realizing that every second with your partner has significance. That way, when each moment or stage is over, you can rest assured that you extending the gratitude that it deserved. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start appreciating your partner.
  • Your gratitude for your partner is higher when things are going well.
    • It’s definitely easier to appreciate your partner in the absence of turmoil. When you choose to spend the rest of your life with someone, you choose to accept them fully, committing to growing and learning together as a team. That’s a lot easier said than done – fighting is inevitable. 
      • How to practice gratitude when you’re on the rocks: Your relationship doesn’t have to be on a dichotomous scale of either good or bad – your relationship can simply “be”. The difficulties don’t have to take away from the many amazing moments you experience together. Similarly, you don’t have to allow the value of your partner/ relationship to decrease when troubles arise. Think of your gratitude for your partner as unconditional – this means that no matter what happens, you are just as thankful for them as you were when you were giving your vows, going away on your first trip together, or celebrating a big accomplishment. All of those reasons that you value your partner do not go away just because they’ve stopped doing some of the things you appreciated, because you can’t seem to find common ground, or even because they’ve hurt your feelings. Keep in mind that you can figure things out as a team, and that you chose each other for a reason.
  • You often hear yourself saying “I want, I need, I wish…” when thinking about your relationship with your partner.
    • Of course we have needs, wants, and wishes. When you’re constantly focused on what you lack, though, it is impossible to recognize what you have. If I come home from a long day at work and see that my partner did not cook dinner like they had agreed to do, I may miss that they had taken over my chore of vacuuming and had simply lost track of time, or maybe I miss that they lost a sale that day, and needed some extra slack. We can get so caught up in thinking of what our partner is NOT giving us. When was the last time you felt fully satisfied – like you had everything you wanted from your relationship? The big problem is that when we’re in that “want” mindset, it doesn’t ever seem to end. We are constantly looking toward the next thing. When will it ever be enough?
      • How to practice gratitude when you don’t have it all: Instead, think about what your partner DOES do for you. Allow where you’re at in life to feel satisfying for the time being. Keep working, keep pushing to improve, but appreciate that where your relationship is at now is something you had worked and wished for in the past. At one point, you thought “MAN, if I could just have this one thing from my partner…if they could be better at this…we’d be great”. It’s likely that your partner eventually worked on and improved that thing, but then came the next, and the next, and so on. One thing at a time, friends. We’re never done growing, evolving, and changing. When you spend your time focusing on what you have within the relationship rather than where your partner is falling short, you’re able to give more to your partner, thus allowing you to be a better team overall. Appreciate your season rather than constantly longing for what’s to come.
  • You lack self-acceptance.
    • We often hear “you have to love yourself before you can love someone else”. Agreed, but it’s not that simple – relationships are intricate and complicated. To me, it’s more self-acceptance that’s needed. Self-talk is self-talk. If you’re really hard on yourself when you make a mistake, your inner voice will naturally be hard on your partner when they make a mistake. How you view yourself directly affects how you view others. If you view yourself as deserving of love unconditionally, you will be able to extend that acceptance to your partner. If your sense of self-worth is low, you may jump right into the pit of self-fulfilling prophecy, looking for signs that you’re unloved, perceiving neutral or even positive behaviors by your partner as negative. Think of how your partner may feel, then – nothing they do is ever good enough, you don’t appreciate them, you always expect the worse, etc. Gratitude isn’t able to blossom, here.
      • How to practice gratitude for yourself so that you can find it for others: There are many reasons that we struggle with this. We are often so focused on the next big accomplishment that we fail to stop and appreciate the little things we do every day – the snuggles with our dog, the tasty dinner we made, how we feel in those new pants…we meet things with negativity and criticism, we have extremely high expectations set for ourselves, and we tie our level of self-worth to our productivity. Similar to what I talked about above, we have to step out of this societal need to reach the next big thing, and find appreciation for who we are in every moment, seeking out small joys throughout every single day. We have to believe we deserve those joys, as well. We have to approach unpleasant experiences in a more neutral or loving way – you hit a pot hole and got a flat tire? Don’t freak out – just solve the problem calmly, and move forward with your day. Lower your expectations for yourself. You can’t possibly expect yourself to conquer the world every day, or to be able to master eight things at the same time. Recalibrate your expectations – do your best, and accept that your best is all you can give. Your worth is not linked to how productive you are – if you sit at home all day watching TV, you are not less worthy than you are on the day that you are so busy saving the day that you don’t even have time for lunch. Realize that you are worthy of gratitude, love, and acceptance always.

Read more:

  1. Chowdhury, M. R. (2019, July 4). The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/.

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