CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Saying “thank you” isn’t just a sign of good manners, it may help save your relationship! A new study finds people who feel appreciated by their significant other express more satisfaction with their relationship and are more likely to stay with their partner.
During a 15-month period, Prof. Allen Barton from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign examined the power of gratitude and how it impacted 316 African American couples. Specifically, Barton’s team wanted to see if both expressing gratitude and perceiving gratitude made couples more resilient to daily stressors — like financial trouble.
“This study was really motivated to understand gratitude in relationships and if it can protect couples from challenges and hardships, be it negative communication or broader factors like financial strain,” Barton says in a university release.
“Much of the prior research looked at the relational effects of expressing gratitude, but one could make the argument that feeling appreciated by one’s partner is important, too. And we tested both to see whether one was more influential for couple relationships than the other.”
Most of the participating couples were middle-aged and lived in smaller communities in rural Georgia. Two in three had a joint income that was less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line — classifying them as the “working poor.” On average, these couples had three children, but some had as many as eight. Married couples had been together for roughly 10 years, while their unmarried counterparts had been living together for around seven years at the start of the study.
Feeling appreciated keeps people from thinking about breaking up
Barton notes that the new study builds on his team’s 2015 report, which examined the impact of financial stress on marriage quality. However, that study only looked at the impact of perceived gratitude and focused on highly-educated white couples.
“In the current study, we wanted to examine the effects of both perceived and expressed gratitude and whether perceived gratitude works similarly with a different demographic population,” Barton explains.
During the 15 months, researchers surveyed the new group three times, examining their arguing and conflict resolution habits, their expressions of gratitude to their partner, and their levels of perceived gratitude from their significant other. The couples also reported on their current levels of financial stress.
Each person also had to rate their satisfaction with their relationship, their relationship’s stability, and their confidence in their future together. The 316 couples did this once at the start of the study and again at the eight and 15-month marks.
“Our main hypothesis was that perceived gratitude from one’s partner would have what we call stress-buffering effects – that it would protect couples from the declines in relationship quality that typically happen when you have negative communication or when you have higher levels of financial strain,” Barton says. “Expressed gratitude really hadn’t been looked at before, so we had no hypotheses with it – our work was more exploratory.”
Results show that participants reporting higher levels of expressed and perceived gratitude were more satisfied with their relationship. These individuals had more confidence that their relationships were stable and were less likely to think about breaking up in the future.
Saying ‘thank you’ can relieve your partner’s stress, too
When the researchers looked at the protective effects of gratitude, they found that perceived gratitude buffered people against the negative impact of various stressors — including financial stress and arguing with a partner.
The couples “did not exhibit as strong of declines in relationship satisfaction or confidence, or the increases in instability that we typically see” with these types of stressors, Barton adds.
“Even if the couple’s negative communication increased – provided they still felt appreciated by their partner – their relationship quality did not decline as much over time. That becomes really important because not every couple is going to be great at communication, particularly when things get heated or intense, or hit a home run with resolving conflicts.”
Perceived gratitude not only protected people from stress in the moment, but it also had a long-lasting effect months later. Study authors do note that higher levels of expressed gratitude did not protect people against stress.
“Be sure to make compliments that are sincere and genuine. And ask your partner if there are any areas in which they feel their efforts aren’t being appreciated or acknowledged and start expressing appreciation for those,” Barton suggests.
The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.