The Effects of Gratitude in Relationships

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus

Gratitude has profound positive effects on our relationships with others and our overall well-being.  Even when times feel bleak or hopeless, there is much for which to be grateful.  Take a break to make contact with the present moment.  Notice the sun shining outside, the feel of the sun’s warmth on your skin, and the colors of the leaves and flowers.  Now turn your mindful awareness towards your partner.

Take a moment to notice all that you love and cherish about your partner.  Even when you feel irritated by your partner, pause to reflect on how so often those very qualities that irritate you the most are also the ones that make your partner so special to you.  Allow yourself to bask in the gratitude for all of the differences between you and your partner.  Appreciate all that makes your partner unique and how those qualities have captivated your interest and love.

Research on Gratitude in Relationships

Research by Kubacka and colleagues (2011) investigated specifically how gratitude influences positive behaviors toward a spouse over time.  They found that :

  • Spouses feel gratitude for their partners when they perceive their partners’ behavior as being responsive to their needs.
  • The feeling of gratitude motivates reciprocal behavior that is responsive back to their partners’ needs.
  • When that reciprocal behavior is perceived, feelings of gratitude result in them as well.
  • A positive cycle is created over time, with increasing gratitude and loving behavior from both individuals.

Gratitude’s influences on positive relationship behavior:

  • When you choose to express gratitude toward your partner, you are increasing the chances that they will behave in loving ways toward you in the future.
  • When you feel gratitude toward your partner, the chances of your behaving in positive and loving ways toward them are increased.

How to Develop a Cycle of Gratitude in Relationships

Who wouldn’t want to create a loving cycle of gratitude within their relationship?  You can begin to witness the positive effects of gratitude develop within your own relationship through remaining mindful and practicing the following tips (Nicholson, 2011):

(1) Feel Gratitude

Begin to actively pay attention to and notice the positive things that your partner does.  Many of us have a natural tendency to only become “alert” to negative cues or signs that our partners have done something wrong.  It is much more beneficial to strengthening the loving bond of your relationship to “catch your partner doing something positive.”  Consider how often your partner does something kind, thoughtful, or loving in your daily lives that might be going unnoticed.

When you choose to become mindful in the present moment, you are increasing the chances of noticing the positive (since you are noticing all aspects of the present moment).  Once you begin to really notice more of the positive things that your partner does (for themselves, for you, and for others) you will naturally experience the feelings of appreciation and gratitude more.  These feelings of gratitude will prompt you to actively value your partner and treat them well in return.

(2) Show Thanks

When you notice that your partner has done something kind or thoughtful for you, tell them.  Let your partner know that you appreciate their thoughtfulness by expressing your gratitude.  Consider the personality of your partner and your history together and reflect upon the best ways for you, as a unique couple, to express gratitude.  Perhaps your partner would deeply appreciate a genuine “thank you,” or a sweet little note hidden someplace, or a hug at the end of the day.  Part of expressing true gratitude to your partner is expressing it in a way that shows you understand and appreciate them.

Choose to go the extra mile of doing something thoughtful for your partner in return.  Recognize that expressions of gratitude do not have to be “over the top” or extravagant in any way.  Gratitude is most deeply felt when it comes from a genuine heartfelt place.  When you do something thoughtful and loving for your partner in return, you are building the positive cycle of gratitude in your relationship.

(3) Look for Appreciation

Gratitude is a motivating force for future loving behavior.  It is important that your partner is genuinely grateful for what you do for them in order to build this positive cycle of gratitude.  You can begin to experiment with what types of loving behaviors your partner truly appreciates through doing something thoughtful for them and then stepping back to really notice the response.  Did they notice, appreciate, and express gratitude for your thoughtfulness in some way?

If your partner does seem to truly appreciate your own loving or thoughtful acts, then the cycle of gratitude is being reinforced.  Notice what works and keep it up.  If something doesn’t work, let it go.  What is the point of continuing to engage in behaviors that are not getting the desired results?  In order to effectively build a loving cycle of gratitude, it is important to remain mindful and vigilant to signs of what is working and what isn’t working within your unique relationship dynamic.

(4) Troubleshoot (if needed)

If you believe that your partner is ungrateful in some way, there are a few different approaches you can take:

  • Be sure that your thoughtful and loving actions are ones that your partner wants and needs (i.e., not what you want/need).
  • Make sure you’re not missing their appreciative behaviors – notice how they tend to give thanks/show gratitude.
  • Notice how invested your partner is in your relationship.  Doing too much for others and asking or expecting nothing in return can lead to you being taken advantage of or not being appreciated.  If this seems to be happening, stop going overboard.  Give your relationship some breathing room and allow your partner the space and opportunity to reengage and contribute to the relationship.
  • If nothing else seems to work and you have openly and directly communicated with your partner, ask yourself if it is in your best interest to take a step back from the relationship.  Reevaluate your options and honestly reflect on what each of you has put into the relationship.  If your partner is truly and deeply unappreciative of all that you do, ask yourself why you would be willing to put up with this type of treatment.

Each moment that you spend with your partner and away from your partner provides you with opportunities to notice things for which to be grateful.  Noticing the positive does not have to mean “Pollyanna-ish” thinking as long as you are noticing things that truly are positive and keeping the negative things in perspective.  Things usually are not “all good” or “all bad.”  Reality is usually somewhere in the middle.  Begin to notice the positive and loving things that your partner does that you may be overlooking.  In this moment you have the choice to begin to build a reciprocal cycle of gratitude in your relationship.

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Nicholson, J. (2011, September 28). How gratitude influences loving behavior [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Featured image: Djamila, I love you! by Tambako the Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on October 17, 2011 at 9:32 am

    I love the idea of “cycles of gratitude.” Gratitude itself is so powerful in so many ways… So much more so are cycles of gratitude I would think!

    • Laura on October 17, 2011 at 8:56 pm

      I loved this idea of “cycles of gratitude” as well. Individual actions/expressions of gratitude are wonderful, and it is even more wonderful to realize how we have the power to create a positive feedback loop within relationships. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Elise on October 19, 2011 at 1:00 am

    I agree and this really works! I tried using gratitude more after reading the famous Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus book a few years ago and I find it can really improve your relationship not just with you significant other but really anybody. Of course, it’s something that we tend to ofthen forget. Thanks Laura for a great reminder and refresher on why we really can all benefit from using more gratitude in our lives.

    • Laura on October 23, 2011 at 8:35 pm

      Elise – I’m glad you have noticed the positive effects of gratitude in your own relationships. In many ways, the expression of gratitude is a simple act that many of us “forget” to express. Thanks for your comment!

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