To Build Intimacy, Trust, Satisfaction, Celebrate the Good Times

To Build Intimacy, Trust, Satisfaction, Celebrate the Good Times

When Tomi Tuel’s husband comes home from a business trip, she grills him a steak and mixes up a Mudslide cocktail, bakes a cake and hangs party streamers from the fan over the kitchen table. Once after an especially long trip, she and the children dressed up the dog—in a tutu, reindeer ears and a sign around its neck that read: “Welcome home, Dad!”

“He thanked and thanked me,” says Ms. Tuel, 48, who lives in Folsom, Calif., and is a state budget analyst. “He was just gushing.”

Do you go out of your way to show your spouse you care?

You should. Experts say a common cause of divorce is the feeling of being unappreciated by one’s spouse. It is a problem that sneaks up on a relationship. Couples expect that having children or financial difficulties will put a strain on their relationship. Yet they are often unprepared for the sadness and resentment that result from feeling ignored or taken for granted by their partner.

Now here’s the good news: Studies show that demonstrating appreciation for your partner not only makes the other person feel better, it makes you feel better, too.

One of the best ways to show your spouse you really care is to go out of your way to celebrate good things that happen to him or her. Think of it as leveraging the positive. Researchers call it “capitalization” and say it is just as important—and maybe more so—than being supportive in tough times.

Researchers found people whose spouses were supportive when things were going right believed the partners also would be helpful if things should go wrong. The research was published in 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Just the perception that there would be support during bad times increased their emotional intimacy, trust and marital satisfaction,” says Shelly Gable, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a co-author on the study.

Another big plus: It’s a lot easier to celebrate good times than to support someone through bad times. While it’s important to be there for a partner when he or she is under stress, research shows there are challenges, too. You may not know what kind of help your spouse truly needs. Your support may make your partner feel vulnerable or indebted and focus more attention on the problem. And even when you succeed in giving support, you are bringing your partner’s mood up to baseline, not necessarily making him or her happy.

And finally: “Positive events occur more often than negative events,” Dr. Gable says. “So there are a lot more opportunities.”

Dr. Gable counts four possible responses to a partner’s good news. You can ignore it or turn the subject back to yourself. Your spouse tells you she got a raise, and you respond with, “What’s for dinner?” or “Wait until you hear what happened to me today.” Researchers call this a “passive destructive” response.

An “active destructive” response would be if you aggressively worked to dampen your spouse’s enthusiasm. “You got a raise? Doesn’t that mean you will have to work a lot more?” Or “how will you handle the stress?”

You could be polite but show little interest—the “passive positive” response. “That’s nice, dear. What would you like for dinner?”

None of these will do your relationship any favors. The correct response—if you want to help your marriage now and down the road, research shows—is “active constructive,” where you display enthusiasm. Be a thoughtful listener. Ask questions. Be interested and excited. And to show you really understand your spouse, point out why the news is important. “I know how hard you worked to earn this promotion. You’ll be a great leader. Let’s go to dinner to celebrate.” Studies show this type of response increases all three positive outcomes—emotional intimacy, trust and marital satisfaction—for both partners.

In addition to celebrating good times, experts say, it is essential to show appreciation to your spouse regularly, as in every day. “You need to participate in relationships to keep them alive,” Dr. Gable says.

While reporting this column, I asked people how they show their spouse they care. I heard from husbands who bring their wives coffee in bed, warm up the car on cold mornings and save her the last piece of chocolate. There are wives who make breakfast for their husbands every morning and brag to friends, within his earshot, about what a great husband he is.

Research shows these little gestures have a powerful effect on a relationship. They promote commitment. “Being appreciative of your partner makes you want to hold on to your relationship,” says Amie Gordon, a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies gratitude in relationships. “It helps you realize you have something great.” When one spouse shows appreciation, she says, it can start a cycle that makes the other spouse more appreciative and committed, too.

Still, there’s a hidden and surprising danger in showing appreciation for your spouse. Do it too often and it might lose its positive impact. “Appreciation is tied up with expectations,” Dr. Gordon says. “The more you expect something, the less you appreciate it.” Her advice: Change it up. Bring your beloved coffee one morning; make a nightcap another day.

And what if you are the one who needs the extra love? “If you want to see good behavior, model it,” says Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York and Boca Raton, Fla. “You need to set the standard you want to receive.”

To avoid feeling self-conscious, start each day with one small act of generosity, Dr. Hokemeyer says. Make the bed for her. Tuck a love note in his suitcase before a business trip. Mail a card or handwritten note to your spouse at home.

Keep up your efforts for 30 days, Dr. Hokemeyer says. Hopefully, by then your spouse will notice and reciprocate. If that doesn’t happen, it’s time for a conversation.

One year, Leon Lewandowski, a third-grade teacher in Santa Barbara, Calif., and his wife, Mary, created an “appreciation box.” They kept a shoebox on the living room mantel with slips of paper and a pen alongside it. During the week, when they each noticed and appreciated something nice the other had done, they wrote it down and slipped the note into the box. “Thanks for letting me sleep in on Saturday morning.” “You made me laugh so hard.” “Your haircut makes you look great.”

On Sunday night, after the children went to sleep, the two sat down, opened the box and read the appreciation slips out loud. Sometimes the notes would lead to further explanation, stories about that day or even more compliments. Always, they made the spouses feel good. “We looked forward to this time each week,” Mr. Baxter says.

Source: The Wall Street Journal