- Expressing gratitude to one's partner can improve a relationship, but perfunctory or automatic "thank yous" may not offer the same benefits.
- This effect may be due to expectations—expecting something to happen (like a thank you) can mean we appreciate it less when it does occur.
- Saying thank you sincerely, praising the other person's actions, and focusing on the benefits you received can improve your "thank you
Think about the last time you said “thank you” to your romantic partner. Can you even remember the exact situation? If you can, was it a quick “thanks” after they did something helpful or a longer and more meaningful expression of appreciation for all the ways they make your life better?
We are trained from a young age to say “thank you” to strangers, friends, and family who help us out. Because of these strong social norms, we say thank you frequently and perfunctorily. We also expect people to thank us.
Unfortunately, expecting something to happen can mean we appreciate it less when it does occur. If you expect your partner to say thanks when you do the dishes, you are probably going to be more likely to notice and remember if they don’t say thank you than if they do.
So what can you do? You probably can’t stop expecting people to say thanks, but research also suggests that not all thank yous are created equal. If you’d like to make the most of the good feelings that come with giving and receiving thanks, here are three research-supported ways to improve your “thank you.”
1. Make sure it's sincere.
This one might feel obvious—a forced thank you is likely to be less beneficial than one that feels heartfelt—but the reality is that many of our thank yous arise because we feel like we should. You are probably saying thank you to your partner most often because your partner made dinner or put gas in the car and you know a thank you is due.
In one study of married couples (Leong et al., 2020), researchers found that perceiving a partner as grateful was more predictive of one’s marital satisfaction than one’s own gratitude, suggesting the importance of receiving thanks from a partner. However, in that same study, people who perceived their partner’s gratitude expressions as less sincere were less satisfied with their relationships than those who felt their partner was sincerely expressing gratitude.
The researchers even found that among the men in the sample (but not the women), perceived sincerity of their partner’s gratitude expression predicted whether or not a gratitude intervention boosted their marital satisfaction. Men who felt their partners were expressing less sincere gratitude actually became less satisfied after their partner was told to express gratitude to them.
These researchers did not look into what makes a sincere thank you, but I think we can probably figure out at least a little of that for ourselves—taking a moment to actually feel the gratitude before you express it might help. And given what we know about expectations, expressing gratitude when it’s not expected or in a way that is not as typical (bringing home flowers or writing a card rather than just saying, “thanks”) might be other ways to help boost the sincerity of “thanks.”
2. Put the "you" in "thank you."
Even sincere thank yous can differ in how high quality they are. Social psychologist Sara Algoe has found that some thank yous make a bigger impact on relationships than others. Expressions of thanks that focus not just on what someone did, but also who they are, seem to be more beneficial.
Saying “thanks for bringing me coffee” to your partner who brought you a cup when you were still in bed meets the minimum requirements for a thank you; but a, “thanks for bringing me coffee in bed—you are always so thoughtful and attentive” acknowledges your partner as well as their kind act and takes your thank you to the next level. Algoe finds that the more gratitude expressions include this “other-praising” behavior, the better people feel after receiving them (e.g., Algoe et al., 2013).
3. Focus on the benefit, not the cost.
When saying thanks, we can focus either on how our partner benefitted us or on the costs they incurred. The coffee your partner brought you, for example, helped wake you up in time not to be late for work—a benefit to you—but it may have also cost your partner the precious morning time they like to spend reading the news.
It turns out these different ways of appreciating our partner may not be equally beneficial. Gratitude expressions that highlight how your partner was responsive and helped meet your need (such as not being late for work) are associated with more positive feelings about the gratitude expression and the relationship (Park et al., 2020). In contrast, gratitude expressions that highlight the cost your partner incurred (not getting to read the news) do not show these same positive associations. So while we might think it’s good to acknowledge the cost our partner is incurring when they help us out, it turns out that it may actually be better to play up the benefit they are giving to us.
These studies are primarily correlational, which means it is possible that other factors are at play here (perhaps couples who are closer are more likely to say these types of thank yous and be happier in their relationships), but the researchers did test and rule out some alternative explanations and look at some of the effects over time.
Overall, these various strands of research suggest that when it comes to gratitude, it may not be just whether you say it, but also how you say it that matters.