How a desperate attempt to fix our struggling relationship with daily gratitude turned out to be an amazing relationship hack, how we fine-tuned the routine, and why you might want to try the same.
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 to these outbursts, I had found a common issue:
Every explosion had to do with Kim feeling I didn’t appreciate her enough.
This frustrated me because I appreciated her more than anything! I’m just not a touchy-feely type of guy. I prefer to show my appreciation through actions instead of words.
But actions evidently weren’t enough. And if I didn’t find a fix soon, our relationship was sunk.
Daily gratitude journals were all the rage at the time. Even my brother was doing it. Apparently, people felt better when they wrote down something they were grateful for every day.
I wasn’t interested in using one and didn’t think I could convince Kim, either, but maybe we could tweak the concept. Instead of writing gratitude for life, I could express my appreciation to Kim in a similar way.
So on November 11, 2015, I made the most (now 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 seemed easy enough and we had nothing to lose but our relationship.
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 and 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.
Being cheesy seemed to be working!
Time Flies, Objects Don’t
A year later, I was still giving Kim a dose of daily 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 the daily gratefuls.
Some Odd Examples
When you need a new grateful every day, they can’t all be super serious. Here are some examples I pulled out during my first year-and-a-half:
- 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 strangely do.
But even these signs of appreciation seemed to work.
A Flaw in the System
Eventually, our relationship started to flip.
Rather than Kim feeling I didn’t appreciate her, I started to feel she didn’t appreciate 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 Starts Her Daily Gratefuls
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 appreciate me more.
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 appreciate Kim more than ever.
So we hoped Kim’s daily gratitude to me would have the same effect on her.
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.
And it 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 when we had to come up with and say something nice about each other.
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.
- Face-to-face. Saying gratefuls by text message are only allowed if one of us is already asleep or we’re in different cities.
- 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.
The next tweak we’re considering implementing is a weekly suggested grateful where we can suggest a grateful that we haven’t received but think we deserve.
For example, I let Kim have the only shower rod in our bathroom here in Cape Town and hang my towel in the bedroom. It’s a small sacrifice, but Kim hasn’t thanked me for it once. I’d appreciate getting some brownie points for it.
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, 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.
Maybe Daily Gratitude Can Fix Your Struggling Relationship?
Hopefully, our story 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 (PDF) 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 too. 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.
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