The Simple Gratitude Habit That Saved Our Relationship

The surprising ways that introducing a daily gratitude practice in our relationship saved it from falling apart.

Updated:

Desperate Times…

It wasn’t her period’s fault.

That, at least, I’d figured out.

In a desperate effort to identify the triggers to Kim’s roughly monthly explosions of sadness, frustration, and anger at me, I’d been tracking where she was on her menstrual cycle, how much she’d had to drink, and other potential risk factors in a spreadsheet.

Nothing correlated.

But while I’d yet to crack the trigger of these outbursts, I had found a common issue:

Gratitude.

Laying in the crater of every explosion was Kim’s feeling I didn’t appreciate her enough.

This frustrated me. I’m just not a touchy-feely, lovey-dovey type of guy.

But evidently my approach to relationships wasn’t working for Kim. And if I didn’t find a fix soon, our relationship would blow up one last time and not be able to be put together again.

Chris reaching for help in Blyde River Canyon in Namibia.
Quick, help!

Desperate Measures

Daily gratitude journals were all the rage at the time. Even my brother was doing it. Apparently, people feel better when they write down things they’re grateful for every day.

I wasn’t interested. And I didn’t think I could convince Kim, either.

But maybe we could tweak the concept. Instead of writing down what I was grateful for in my life, I could express my gratitude to Kim in a similar way.

So on November 11, 2015, I made the most [Update: second-most] important proposal I’ve ever made to Kim:

Every day, I’d tell her something new about her that I was grateful for.

It seemed cheesy and insubstantial, but what the hell. It was easy enough and I had nothing to lose but our relationship.

chris kim standing in front of rental car calrence drive route
I’m grateful Kim can drive stick, so we can save money on cheaper rental cars and I don’t have to drive all the time.

Feeling Cheesy

Saying things like, “I’m grateful you have such a beautiful smile,” felt and even sounded awkward. It’s not my style.

But Kim seemed to like it. She sure as heck didn’t tell me to stop, so I continued.

About thirty days and thirty gratefuls later, I noticed something was missing: I hadn’t had to add a new line to Kim’s outburst tracking spreadsheet.

Daily gratitude was like Chocolate Santafereño in Colombia, hot chocolate with cheese on top. The cheesiness seemed strange, but it worked!

Kim having a chocolate Santafereno, one of our favorite Colombian drinks
I’m grateful Kim’s willing to try strange new foods with me when we go out.

Time Flies, Objects Don’t

A year later, I was still injecting our relationship with daily doses of gratitude.

We’d fight from time to time but they were category 1 or 2 hurricanes, not 4 and 5. No longer were deadly objects and words flying around our heads. They were small, easy-to-clean messes.

We were both grateful for this daily gratitude practice.

Chris thinking about whether or not he should join the people running below him along La Turia in Valencia
I’m grateful Kim started returning the favor so I didn’t have to make as many melancholy faces like this one.

A Flaw in the System

Eventually, our relationship started to flip.

Rather than Kim feeling I wasn’t grateful for her, I started to feel she wasn’t grateful for me.

She took the few good things about me for granted and only focused on all the negatives. This created festering negativity that was eating away at our relationship.

So Kim and I agreed it was time to make a change to our daily gratitude practice.

Kim starting to appreciate Chris by giving him daily gratefuls, too.
I’m grateful Kim’s always got my back, even when it’s not in her best interest.

Kim Joins In

In April 2017, Kim started returning the favor by expressing daily gratitude to me.

I didn’t care about being told how handsome, funny, smart, and amazing I am every day (it’s obvious), but we hoped Kim’s daily gratitude would have the same unexpected side effect as they had for me:

They’d make her more grateful about me.

It seems counterintuitive for the person expressing gratitude to benefit from it, but it was working that way for me. To come up with the 523rd-and-counting different thing to be grateful of Kim for, I had to mentally run through a long list of gratefuls I’ve already used and be on the lookout for new ideas throughout the day. All those positive thoughts were making me more grateful for Kim than ever.

We hoped Kim’s daily gratitude to me would have the same effect on her.

Chris happy that Kim was feeling better after we started daily gratefuls
I’m grateful Kim rarely makes me pose, like this, for photos.

Bonus Benefits

Getting daily gratefuls from Kim worked! She no longer took me for granted.

And I was surprised by how much I appreciated getting gratefuls from her. It felt good to be acknowledged for the little things I did, like always giving her the best side of the bed when we traveled or cleaning the nasty hairs (mostly hers) out of the shower drain.

This created a virtuous cycle. Knowing our good deeds were being acknowledged encouraged us to do more of them.

Daily gratitude also opened up our conversation. It brought up topics we wouldn’t otherwise talk about and made us more comfortable to voice concerns about our relationship. (This study explains the latter.)

We continued to bicker and fight, but not with nearly the vehemence of before because our hard feelings softened from having to say something nice about each other regardless.

Chris and Kim with views of Fish River Canyon in Namibia, in the background.
I’m grateful Kim remembers to ask people to take photos of us together when we travel.

Fine-Tuning Our Daily Gratitude Practice

As we’ve continued our daily gratitude practice, we’ve fine-tuned the practice by agreeing to the following rules:

  • Daily. No exceptions.
  • No repeats. We don’t write them down (though that’d be a cool list to have), but if we’re sure the other has said that grateful before, they have to come up with a different one.
  • Any time. We generally exchange our gratefuls before bed, but if one of us comes up with a grateful during the day, they can say it immediately.
  • No “don’ts” two days in a row. A don’t is like, “I’m grateful you don’t smell like sewage most of the time.” They’re less meaningful so we restrict their use.
  • Punishment. If either of us forgets, they have to give the other a 10-minute massage the next day.
Kim's engagement ring, the final product of the unconventional steps from this blog
I’m grateful Kim accepted my marriage proposal and was cool with an unconventional engagement ring.

Grateful Till Death Do Us Part

Today, I will tell Kim the 1,477th thing I’m grateful about her.

She’s on number 953 for me.

We’re now engaged to be married [Update: Engagement’s over; we’re married.], so hopefully, we each have another 20,000 or so to go.

I don’t like to think about it, though. Thinking of the day one of us won’t be around anymore to exchange daily gratefuls makes me incredibly sad.

But it also makes me especially grateful to have her today.

And, thanks to our daily gratitude routine, I know she feels the same.

Willing to Give Daily Gratitude a Shot in Your Relationship?

Hopefully, our story of how daily gratitude fixed our struggling relationship has convinced you to try.

If not, maybe the science that daily gratitude is a booster shot for romantic relationships will convince you.

And while it makes the most sense for romantic relationships, the practice could work just as well for business partners, friends, or family. You could even do it with yourself.

Try it if you’re as desperate as Kim and I were. It’s easy. It’s cheesy, too. But it works. 

Tips You Both Might Be Grateful For

✓ Say how they make your life better.

This Psychology Today article on “The Right Way to Express Gratitude in Relationships” summarizes a study that found that the most rewarding way to express your gratitude is:

  • Not by framing it as the cost your partner incurred. “I’m grateful you took the time out of your day to pose as a model for my Instagram shoot.”
  • But how their behavior benefitted you. “I’m grateful you modeled for me today because you’re way better looking than me and this will help me get more attention and grow my business.”

This is exactly in line with the key takeaway from my research into how to ask for help: People are more likely to agree to assist you, be glad they did, and want to do it more if you can clearly show them their efforts were effective.

✓ It doesn’t always have to be serious.

When you need a new grateful every day, they can’t all be super meaningful. Here are some examples I found amongst our messages:

  • I’m grateful you seem to have gotten over your addiction to playing Despacito over and over.
  • I’m grateful you feel so comfortable with me that you can fart with me around and not feel embarrassed.
  • I’m grateful that when you sneeze, you let it all out rather than hold in it like some people do.

Even these seemed to work.

Here’s a post with more ideas:

✓ Make it a monthly challenge.

Start with a 30-day experiment. Or 28 days if you’re lucky enough to start on a February.

Challenge yourself and your partner to exchange gratitude every day. Write them down, too, for a record. Set how that works, and go from there.

For best practices, check out my 30-day challenge anti-failure system.

✓ Implement a pleasurable penatly.

I mentioned above that if Kim or I forget about our daily gratitude, we owe the other a ten-minute massage.

The benefit of such a penalty is that it’s beneficial to our relationship. Kim almost wishes I forget to give my daily grateful so she can get me to rub down her shoulders!

Other potential pleasurable penalties could be having to cook a nice meal for the other, putting $20 into a date night jar, or having to come up with ten additional gratefuls.

Chris being silly at a wine tasting in South Africa
I’m grateful Kim isn’t big into PDA.

✓ Don’t just tell it; show it.

I suppose it’s the opposite of “Stick and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Let’s try:

“Compliments and flattery don’t matter to me, but gestures aren’t soon forgotten.”

In any case, words alone aren’t enough to repair and reinforce a relationship. It comes down to backing what you say with physical actions:

  • Treating your partner to date nights.
  • Giving them hugs and kisses.
  • Buying them surprise gifts.
  • Holding their hand on walks.

To put this tip to the test, I recently challenged myself to show appreciation to Kim ever day for a month. Here’s how it went down:

About the author

👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

2 responses to “The Simple Gratitude Habit That Saved Our Relationship”

  1. Bryanna Avatar
    Bryanna

    Thank you! I absolutely love this idea and will be trying it! Your funny, unfiltered style of your writing is very enjoyable and relatable. I’m grateful you decided to create a blog and share your thoughts with others.

    Keep it up!
    ~B

  2. Chris Avatar
    Chris

    Thanks Bryanna! I’m grateful for your nice words and for “breaking the comment seal” by being the first to comment. (When people see someone else has commented, they’re more likely to do so, and we love getting comments.) Hopefully anyone you try this with will be grateful for it.

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