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How do you feel when your husband brings you coffee in bed or stops on his way home to pick up your favorite ice cream? Are you grateful? Suspicious? Do you feel like you owe him? Maybe you barely register the gesture at all.
A recent study in the journal Personal Relationships suggests that doing small things for your partner can help strengthen your relationship—if he or she feels gratitude in response. If, however, the partner feels indebted, like they have to repay the act, researchers say everyday kindnesses will not have the same beneficial effect.
According to the study, when we’re in an intimate relationship, we tend to do things for the other person, like plan a dinner party to celebrate a promotion or take the kids to the zoo so your spouse can enjoy alone time. Though we believe these acts will always be met with gratitude, in reality, they may not. Over time, they may become expected and go unnoticed, or may be regarded with resentment or distrust. Lead researcher Sara B. Algoe, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her team wanted to find out if these acts of kindness still benefit a relationship, even when met by the other person with a sense of obligation.
The researchers followed 65 couples for two weeks, tracking everyone’s daily relationship satisfaction and sense of connection with their partner. They found that when a thoughtful gesture increased feelings of gratitude, it improved how couples felt about their relationship. Those who felt gratitude from their partners felt more connected and more satisfied with the romantic relationship than they had the previous day. When people felt indebted by their partner’s act of kindness, it did not give a romantic boost to the relationship. In other words, all the flowers in the world aren’t going to bring back that loving feeling if the recipient feels like they now owe their partner something nice in return.
According to the authors, gratitude is a type of positive thinking that can help improve how we feel about our situation. “Feelings of gratitude and generosity are helpful in solidifying our relationships with people we care about, and benefit the one giving as well as the one on the receiving end,” Algoe said in a statement. It’s just another reminder to give thanks for the little things, no matter how trivial they may seem at the time.
Right now, my fiancé is upstairs vacuuming, something I know he is loathe to do. And even though I wish he would do it more often (don’t ask how long it’s been since our carpet was last vacuumed), I still appreciate his doing it. Maybe I’ll even buy him dinner tonight at the rib joint he loves. Not because I owe him, but because when he does things to help me out, it makes me want to do nice things for him, too. And if, as the study suggests, it helps strengthen our bond, too, well, then that’s just icing on the cake.