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December 31, 2014

Two Simple Words that Will Change Your Marriage

I walked in from the garage, groceries weighing down my shoulders. He grabbed the bags and helped put the milk in the fridge while I took out the frozen fruit. We continued putting things away while our baby girl crawled around us until finally, everything was put away. I turned to get some water when I saw him shoot a sidelong glance and something between a smirk and disappointment flashed across his face.

“What?” I said, reaching for the water faucet.

“…Nothing,” he said, turning away from me.

I sighed. After eight years of marriage, I knew exactly what he was looking for.

He wanted me to appreciate him.

I had been out for the last six hours: attending church, eating out with friends, and then getting groceries. He had stayed home to care for our sick baby during this time and he needed appreciation.

But I didn’t want to give it.

Why not? I stubbornly held onto my unspoken thanks like a tight-fisted gratitude-monger. Staying at home was my life. I watched her for well over six hours every day so that he could go to the world and do things (like work…). And he didn’t thank me every day for that, did he?

Oh wait, he did.

He does. Every day. And he says it like he means it, because… because well, because he really means it.

He thanks me for caring for her. He thanks me for taking her to activities. He thanks me for grocery shopping with her, and he thanks me for feeding her. He thanks me for getting the laundry done and putting away the dishes and preparing dinner. He thanks me for playing with her and for teaching her things. And you know what? It never gets old. It feels so good to be appreciated for all of those little things.

So why do I find it so hard to give it back?

I know it has something to do with pride, like he should have to really earn it or something. Where did I get that crazy idea? Why can’t we just appreciate people for things, even if it’s stuff they’re supposed to do? Does it make me feel indebted to them? Should it? Does it make it harder to say thank you when they do extra big things?

I think the answer to the last couple questions is supposed to be No. So why am I so stingy with my gratitude?

I couldn’t think of a good reason. All the reasons that came floating through my mind were clearly rooted in pride and selfishness. Since it’s so unnatural for me to verbally say, “Thank you for…” I decided to write them down, which is somehow so much easier for me. So ever since that day, I’ve been emailing him lists every day with a goal of sending 10 things I appreciated him for from the day.

When I told him I was going to try to do this, he appreciated the sentiment but said it would be hard for me to come up with ten every day. Well, that has proven to be not true at all. As a matter of fact, there are often more than ten. It’s easy. It’s so easy. It flows faster than I can type.

  1. Thank you for cleaning up after we hosted the dinner.
  2. Thank you for going to the mall with me even though you don’t like going out.
  3. Thank you for telling me I’m good at making up songs for her.
  4. Thank you for feeling so bad for me when my special package didn’t arrive on time.
  5. Thank you for changing her diaper.
  6. Thank you for listening to me talk about my blog plans.
  7. Thank you for watching her for “just 8 minutes” which somehow turned into an hour.
  8. Thank you for clearing the gutters before the storm.
  9. Thank you for going to work.
  10. Thank you for waiting up for me to go to bed.
  11. Thank you for being okay with the lame dinner I had (not) prepared.
  12. Thank you for bringing home sweets from work for me.

Here’s the thing about gratitude: the more you practice it, the more you feel it. This isn’t the first time I’ve learned this lesson, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last. The difference in attitude is like night and day. Just a week ago, he took her up to change her diaper, and all that crossed my mind was, “Oh good, he changed her diaper. One less diaper for me to change.” Today, when I realized he was taking her up for a diaper change, it seemed odd not to call out, “Thanks for changing her diaper!”

It didn’t change anything outwardly– he continued diaper-changing, I continued not helping with the diaper change. Yet it made a difference within both of us. It made him feel appreciated and more apt to do more diaper changes. It made me feel grateful and more apt to do more diaper changes. Isn’t that so much better than me saying nothing? This would just lead to him feeling like he did extra work, and me feeling like my life’s goal was to get out of as much work as possible. Not nearly as fun, you see. While the point shouldn’t be to make people feel better about doing more stuff for you, I have to admit it is a nice side effect.

Chores aside, the real issue is that this attitude changes your heart’s perspective on life. Is a diaper change everyday, mundane, routine, and somewhat expected? Yes. Does it still merit appreciation? SURE, why not?? What does it hurt me to say Thank You? None at all! What does it do for him? MAKES HIM FEEL GOOD. And you know what? It makes me feel good, too! It makes me feel thankful for a husband who will take the initiative to change a stinky diaper if he knows it needs to be changed! I AM SO BLESSED!

How many more blessings have I been missing out on and taking for granted these last few months? Years? How many opportunities have I missed to swell with gratitude and appreciate the husband and life the good Lord has given me? Ben may have been missing out on some appreciation from me, but I was also missing out on a more beautiful perspective–a more beautiful life.

When I was younger, I somehow got the thought in my head that if two people were really close, they didn’t need to say thank you to each other. It was understood. Saying it actually diminished the intimacy and understanding we had between us. We were so close we didn’t need to be formal with each other and say Please or Thank you or Excuse me. Wow, now that I read that, it looks really silly. But that’s how I saw it. A sign of close friendship was when we didn’t even have to say thanks— it was just understood between us.

The problem with that is that after time, it isn’t understood… and part of that is because I am not saying it, not even in my head. We just come to expect things from each other, but there is no appreciation for them anymore. Experience now tells me that expectations without appreciation is a pretty unhappy place to be. Why would I want friendships to move in that direction? How does that benefit anybody? I cannot think of a reason.

In addition to my lists, I’ve been working on saying Thank You, and saying it right away. While the lists are nice, they don’t make up for sincere and heartfelt words of appreciation right there in the moment. It still isn’t second nature to me, but I know it can be learned.

Learning to be content and grateful in any circumstance continues to be a theme in my life. What about you? Is it easy for you to notice and show gratitude to those in your life? Do you feel appreciated by those closest to you, or could you use a little more positive feedback from them? I’d love to hear your reflections and any experiences you’ve had with learning or choosing to be thankful!

26 responses to “Two Words that Will Change Your Marriage”

  1. Florence says:

    Stephanie, that is definitely my case too!! I’m mostly working on “say thank you instead of criticizing”!
    But another area is around pride. I was raised to say thank you and sorry immediately in all cases, same as Elizabeth, but… It comes as a reflex only in the *easy* cases. When it touches my pride, it can be sooo hard to utter those few small words… I’ll think “oh well, he knows I’m thankful”, or “she knows I’m sorry, it’s obvious, and I can’t *not* be…”

  2. Curt says:

    At age 78 it is so wonderful to read such wisdom from someone at an early point in their marriage. Your marriage and career will go far.

    • joellen says:

      Wow, thanks Curt! That means a lot coming from someone with so much more life experience. I’d love to hear wisdom from you!! On any topic! (Seriously. My grandparents and I can’t really communicate with each other, so I have always been itching to hear from older generations!)

  3. Elizabeth Zirkle says:

    I know what you mean about the “implied lifetime thank you”. It must be from those so called love stories you see at the movies where every last thing is so dramatic and saying thank you would ruin the moment of his devotion. (=°°(
    Another good reason to teach your kids to say thank you to the point of it being a reflex. My mom did, and I’m so glad.

    • joellen says:

      Sigh. Those movies and dramas can be so misleading!
      Good job to your mom! I always tried to teach that to my students, too. They were much better at it than me :).

  4. Leeanna says:

    Appeciation is the key to staying connected and to keeping love alive. My first marriage lasted 20 long years. He stopped being appreciative about a year into our marriage. By year 20, I was worn out, being the sole earner (I teach kindergarten) and raising the kids. He took me for granted. I realize now that he was a narcissist. Not only did he not say thank you but he expected me to do all I did and more.

    After he died three years ago I started dating a friend I had known at 18. We truly appreciate each other. We are both so grateful for each other’s presence and every kindness, little or big.

    In my classroom I emphasize how important saying thank you is and how we need to take care of each other and be grateful to one another. Gratefulness breeds more gratitude!

    Love your blog! Keep at it!

    • joellen says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Leeanna! Appreciation really does make a difference, doesn’t it? Glad you are teaching it to the next generation!! 🙂

  5. Good words! I also learned that if, say, my husband went to the grocery store for me, I shouldn’t notice first what he forgot or got wrong, but to be thankful that he went in the first place! I have to very carefully approach the subject of wrong items after I’ve appreciated the service, which does mean a great deal for me.

    • joellen says:

      Haha YES I totally have to catch myself and be less critical. A lot. I should probably work on being more gracious about it, too! Thank you for the reminder.

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