This post is part of my Vital Skills series, a collection of 10 non-negotiable practices we absolutely must hone if we are to craft the loving relationships we truly desire. The word ‘vital’ has been used here intentionally for its dual significance; these skills are not only essential, they are life-giving. The time and energy invested in developing these habits is paid back immeasurably in the connection we share with our partners as a result.
Most of us have an intuitive since that appreciating our partners is probably a good idea. In fact, it was likely in our vows somewhere (if we can even remember). But what does appreciation really mean? And what does it look like? In this Vital Skill, I’ll show that appreciation is not just window dressing. It is an absolute imperative if we want our relationships to survive, let alone thrive.
An Appreciation of Differences
Culturally, we are facing an epidemic. We are living in a time of unprecedented health and prosperity, yet most of us are walking around deprived of a vital nutrient: connection. Connection, no less than water, food, or air, is biologically necessary to thrive. Our bodies are primed for it. Our hearts yearn for it. So why does it seem so hard to come by?
For heterosexual couples, one looming obstacle is that men and women often pursue emotional closeness in conflicting ways. In living rooms, bedrooms, and, yes, therapy rooms all across the country, much attention is focused on the way a couple communicates. Expressing feelings, we’re told, is the royal road to connection, and that is 100% true. For women.
Most women instinctively turn to their mate when feeling distant in order to receive support and validation. These conversations, at least theoretically, quell her greatest vulnerability to fear. A woman’s unspoken fear of being harmed, isolated, and deprived is often the driving force behind her desire to talk about the relationship. She feels anxiety around disconnection and wants to tell her mate so that he can reassure her.
Your average man, however, is not particularly soothed by these conversations. That’s because they touch on his greatest vulnerability: shame. A man’s unspoken shame about his partner’s dissatisfaction is often the driving force behind his desire to avoid talking about the relationship. He desperately wants reassurance, too, but the vulnerability of asking for help — especially when his partner is displeased — is too great for him to bear.
This fear-shame dynamic sets up a spiral of disconnection:
In a typical scenario, a woman feels emotional distance and attempts to bridge the gap by talking about her experience, a female way to pursue connection. The man, having been told most of his life that he is doing connection all wrong, interprets her efforts as criticism and begins to feel inadequate. He either becomes defensive as a way to ward off shame, or collapses into it and withdraws. Whether he is attacking or pulling back, the woman’s fear increases. She can choose to retreat further into disconnection, or double down on her pursuit of him. If she withdraws, he is spared from further shame, but her fear is left unabated. If she continues pressing, his shame only escalates. Neither gets the connection they crave.
This couple later lands in an office like mine insisting that they need help communicating, but most partners communicate just fine when they are feeling connected. And, despite appearances, both partners want connection, they are just pursuing it in different ways. Women want to talk because it makes them feel better, and men don’t want to talk because it doesn’t make them feel better. Without understanding the fear-shame dynamic, we see this standoff as a cause of disconnection, not a symptom of it. We do not become disconnected when we stop communicating. We stop communicating when we are disconnected.
In order to transform the fear-shame dynamic and reclaim connection, both men and women must be able to tune into one another’s vulnerabilities. When feeling emotionally distant, it’s helpful for us to understand our partners’ prerequisites for connection. For a woman to feel connected, she must feel safe and secure. For a man to feel connected, he must feel adequate as a protector. Feeling important and valuable soothes both core vulnerabilities. Despite their differences, the soul of connection for both men and women is a sense that they are cherished and appreciated.
When we understand the fear-shame dynamic, we recognize that appreciation is more than just periodically complimenting or thanking our partners so they can feel good. It is the deliberate effort to acknowledge that they see the world differently and posses vulnerabilities that we do not experience to the same degree. It is the explicit movement towards protecting them as a way of showing them they matter to us.
From Deficiency to Proficiency
As you might imagine, most couples I see clinically have relationships that I would call appreciation deficient. These partners rarely let each other know how much they appreciate the good qualities in each other. In fact, they are often so entrenched in their negative pattern that they can no longer let themselves see the good qualities in one another. As much as anything else, therapy becomes about moving these partners from appreciation deficiency to appreciation proficiency.
The ravages of appreciation deficiency cannot be overstated. Close to 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women who believe their husbands don’t care about how they feel. The saddest part is that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the man does care very deeply about his partner — underneath his own pain and resentment. The gendered discrepancy here likely reflects the male tendency to withdraw from relationship when feeling inadequate, and clinical experience suggests that men in general feel no more appreciated in their relationships than women do. Man or woman, it’s clear that we cannot allow our loving treasures to remain buried. If we want our relationships to thrive, we must practice appreciation as an art form.
Why Is Appreciating so Important?
Hopefully by now it’s obvious that our relationships need more appreciation, but an understanding of attachment needs really hammers the point home. Attachment theory suggests that adults, no less than infants, rely on emotional connections with few, irreplaceable others. Reliance on these connections is part of our survival programming. When isolation and rejection threaten a loving connection, the human brain codes it as a primal panic response. Although the primal panic can take any number of forms, the question behind it is always the same: “Do I matter to you?”
The essence of appreciation is showing our partners that they are important to us. This insulates them against the primal panic associated with attachment distress and makes the relationship more secure. When we have a solid foundation of appreciation, we are not so disquieted by bumps in the road. Our routine appreciations literally have the power to spare our partners from the throes of life-or-death survival responses.
To put some hard numbers behind these claims, consider the research of marital scientist John Gottman. Gottman claims to be able to predict with 90% accuracy which couples will divorce within three years simply on the basis of the ratio between positive and negative interactions. His magic ratio is 5:1; that is, for every single negative interaction, we must have five positive ones. Couples who fight bitterly but still enjoy one another are far more likely to stay together than low-conflict couples who merely “get along.”
A precondition for appreciation is the capacity to enjoy, and your relationship desperately needs it. Not taking pleasure in what we have is a form of ingratitude, and your partner will certainly pick up on it. But while being chronically ungracious can certainly suck the wind out of your marriage, there is a more important reason to actively cherish your life: a lack of appreciation dishonors your right to be happy. Partners be damned, there is a personal cost to not enjoying what you have worked so hard for.
Appreciation and Change
Appreciating our partners is particularly important when we are asking our partners to change. While it is important to not shy away from difficult truths about our experience of our partners, it is no less important to actively share the pleasurable ones. Appreciating is the easiest and most effective way to amplify the positive changes they are making that are pleasing to us. This, however, goes both ways! We must also demonstrate through our actions that we desire to be pleasing to them in return.
Appreciation can be difficult in these times if we have developed mistrust in our relationship. After years of disappointment, it can be tempting to hide behind a wall. While most people come by their walls honestly, if we truly want our relationship to be workable, we must, in due time, be willing to come out.
There is a world of difference between the relative ease it takes to complain about what we aren’t getting out of our relationships and the energy and skill it requires to get it. We cannot withhold love and appreciation until we are perfectly satisfied. We must get down in the trenches with our partners and work alongside them. In short, we cannot ask for monumental changes from our partners and then sit back with arms folded tapping our proverbial foots.
Too many partners operate under the rule “Set limits when I can, reward when I have to.” Great relationships are characterized by the opposite: “Set limits when I have to, reward when I can.” We all know that relationships take work, and we will be much better off when we learn to enjoy the process.
Make It a Ritual
Set aside time at least once a day to appreciate one another. At the end of the day, tell your partner three things that you appreciate. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Appreciation can be for something your partner has done:
“I really appreciate the way you let me vent about work this afternoon. You really helped me calm down.”
Appreciation can be for something your partner will do:
“Thank you for agreeing to pick up the kids tomorrow so I can go to my class. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Appreciation can be about an enduring quality or trait:
“I’ve always admired how spontaneous you are. It really balances me out.”
Appreciation can be about a physical characteristic:
“You have the most wondrous eyes. I could stare at them all day.”
Appreciation can be a form of apology and repair:
“I am sorry I was brat this morning. Thank you for making my lunch anyway.”
Make It Meaningful
I caught myself on this one the other day. My wife had just finished cooking us lunch and after the first bite I said “this is delicious!” I then finished my soup and sandwich and went about my afternoon.
Now, that might not seem like such a big deal. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve done in my marriage. But it was a missed opportunity. And here’s why:
Compliments to our partners are effective to the extent they convey our genuine feeling that our lives are better because they are in it.
My life was not improved in that moment because of the sandwich, delicious though it was. And certainly, my wife is relationally skilled enough to infer how I appreciated that her efforts yielded a great result. But I don’t want her to have to infer.
Had I remembered my own advice, I would have shifted my praise from the meal itself to the act of love that give rise to it, and more importantly, to the person completing that act: “I’m so grateful that you took time out of your busy day to cook for us. You are the best.” (This one works even if the food isn’t great.)
Notice and Shift All Victim-Thinking
Nothing robs us of appreciation like victim-thinking. While there are clear cases of victimhood — like when a bomb goes off in a building or one person is physically abusive towards another — the majority of the time our victim thinking is a self-created box that walls us off from experiencing the wonders of our own lives.
My antidote to victim-thinking is to change it, leave it, embrace it, and own it. If you don’t like something, you make the choice to improve it, to walk away from it, or to embrace the good qualities of the situation. And then you own your choice. (Hint: owning means not blaming your partner!)
A lack of appreciation is driven by thoughts of scarcity: not enough money, not enough love, not enough ______. Scarcity breeds scarcity and makes for anxious partners.
Combat a sense of scarcity by making it a deliberate effort to remember abundance. Several times a day, and especially in distressing moments, take a few seconds to stop and breathe. Notice how nourishing the air is as it moves deep into your belly, and find something in your surroundings to admire. Remember that our world is abundant, and that the current moment is abundant, if we only shift our attention away from scarcity. Your particular circumstance will not take that abundance away.