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THE KEY TO LIVING OUR LOVE
Most married couples, even though they love each other very much in theory, tend to view each other in practice as large teeming flaw colonies, the result being that they get on each other's nerves and regularly erupt into vicious emotional shouting matches over such issues as toaster settings.
In the three years since I wrote Attitudes of Gratitude, I've been teaching about and practicing gratitude on a daily basis. What I've come to see is that while it is easy to be grateful in the abstract—for sun and rain and good food—often the place where it is most difficult to practice is in our most intimate relationships. So many of us are (rightfully) grateful to the stranger who helps us pull our car out of the ditch but take for granted the daily gift our loved one is.
I know that's true for me. I am almost always unfailingly appreciative of everyone except the one closest to me. With my husband, just as Dave Barry points out, I spend most of my time cataloging his most irritating foibles and lacks. And yet I know all the way down to my bones that one of the best ways to create happiness and joy in life, and therefore in love, is to be as grateful as possible.
And so I set out to study the phenomenon. What holds us back from a full sense of gratitude to this other being who has chosen us among all others to spend a life with? What would happen if we truly allowed ourselves to feel the gift this love represents? How can we cultivate gratitude for love on a daily basis?
As with all my books, I must say that I am no expert in this. In fact, when it comes to an attitude of gratitude in love, I am a rank beginner. What you are holding in your hand is a work in progress. It represents what I and others have learned about the joy that can be experienced by living in a state of gratitude for our intimate partner; why we keep ourselves from experiencing the happiness gratitude can bring; the attitudes that foster such positive feelings; and the practices that enhance the possibility on a daily basis. I offer it in the spirit of a fellow traveler, one who seeks to live fully and love well, a flawed human being who, at the end of her life, wishes to be able to be proud of the ways she has loved those who have graced her life.
Creating a happy relationship is no small task. It has many components, only one of which—showing gratitude—will be looked at here. But the task itself is very worthwhile. Here's just one way to think about it—in terms of dollars (although how they figure out these things is beyond me). A twenty-five-year study of happiness done by Dartmouth College and London University found that a stable, long-term relationship was equal to $100,000 a year in income in creating happiness! So there's one reason to practice.
Here's another, more spiritually oriented one. I know only a few things with absolute certainty. One is that our intimate relationship—the pairing of one human being with another—is the greatest vehicle for emotional and spiritual growth life affords us. Within its crucible, every old wound is revisited, every certainty is challenged, every fine quality of our being is forced to expand beyond our perceived limits. If we do it right, we are inevitably transformed into more loving and wise human beings. But too often we get stuck in ruts that prevent us from allowing this alchemical magic to take place. We run the same negative stories over and over, we get caught in games of blame and shame, we give up in despair.
That's where the power of gratitude comes in. The more we can practice gratitude for our love, the less we get stuck in the places where relationships can really hang us up. Theorists call this an "asset focus." Increasingly, those who study human systems are doing work that shows the more you look at what's right instead of what's wrong, the more change actually occurs. Impasses break up, new insights arise, and the energy begins to move in a positive direction. Conversely, when you focus on what's wrong, you tend to dig yourself into a bigger hole.
Socially, this understanding of how important an asset focus is can be seen in the switch so many people are making from therapy to coaching when needing support. Therapy assumes you or your relationship are broken and need to be fixed; most of the focus during the sessions is on analyzing the problem and where it came from. Coaching, on the other hand, assumes you or your relationship are whole and supports you in manifesting more of what you want. The current focus on coaching represents, whether implicitly or explicitly, an understanding that noticing what's right is more useful than analyzing what's wrong in creating satisfaction and peace of mind in ourselves and our relationships. This is not to say that therapy or looking at a problem is always bad; sometimes it is crucially important in order to heal. But it is an awareness that perhaps we've been putting most of our attention on the wrong thing. As the song says, We've been looking for love in all the wrong places.
My understanding of this was first born years ago, when a prospective author met with me in my role as executive editor of Conari Press. I am sorry that I can't remember her name to thank her directly, but unfortunately her name is lost somewhere in the annals of my brain. What I do recall is that she was a therapist who had a book idea she wanted to talk with me about. We had lunch, the typical venue for such conversations, and she said to me, "I have the secret to instantly improving any relationship. It's so simple it's almost unbelievable. Anyone can do it, anytime, anywhere, even if only one person in the relationship does it. The other person doesn't even have to know you are doing it." We had a pleasant lunch, and then she went on her way. I never heard from her again. I don't know whether she ever did write her book.
Meanwhile I published hundreds of other books and began to write my own—on kindness, gratitude, simplicity, and generosity. Then one day, after Attitudes of Gratitude was such a hit, Conari Press Sales Director Brenda Knight said to me, "I know what you should write about next—Attitudes of Gratitude in Love." That sounded just right, particularly given the learnings I needed in that precise area, so I said yes. Months later, after much cogitating on the topic, the long-ago lunch with the therapist floated into my mind. For—you might have already guessed it—her idea was the practice of gratitude as a sure-fire way to improve any love relationship. So I bow in thanks to her and to the mysteries of the universe that have brought me to this awareness in my own time and in my own way.
As I practice thankfulness and work with others, I've come to know how deeply true it is that gratitude can make any relationship more joyful and enriching. No matter how you feel right now about your partner, your outlook and therefore the situation itself will get better if you simply begin to notice what's already wonderful about him or her. An attitude of gratitude will not solve all problems—no one thing could ever do that—but it can make all problems more manageable. That's because gratefulness is a mood elevator; by flooding our bodies with endorphins, it gives us hope. Gratitude also opens our hearts and gets us out of bitterness or resentment, creating a sense of emotional generosity toward the one we love. And from that place of generosity, new possibilities emerge.
The process is so effective that often I find myself in awe. Love with all of its problems seems to be so complex, how could this be so easy? Could it be this uncomplicated? The only thing I can recommend is to experience it for yourself. This little book is a place to begin.
May you find within its pages thoughts and practices that will be stunningly simple for you to use to bring more joy and peace into your most intimate relationship. May your love grow exponentially as you practice, and may the ripples of that love reach out to touch all those around you.
THE GIFTS OF RELATIONSHIP GRATITUDE
Kindness in words creates confidence; kindness in thinking creates profoundness; kindness in feeling creates love.
We begin by looking at what thankfulness and appreciation can do for relationships and the people within them. By focusing on the rewards first, by understanding the benefits of thankfulness, we give ourselves an incentive to begin to learn new attitudes and behaviors. The gifts of gratitude are many, but in some senses, they all boil down to Laotzu's quote—gratefulness creates kindness in feeling, which in turn generates more love. And isn't that what we all truly want?
You'll Feel Closer and More Loving
Love doesn't make the world go round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile.
—Franklin P. Jones
As I write, Christmas is rapidly approaching, with all of its usual hectic joys and obligations. Add to that three December birthdays in our family—on the 17th, the 20th, and the 25th—a rapidly approaching book deadline, and the fact that I was just away in Europe for a week doing work—and you might not be surprised to know that I've been racing around like a whirling dervish. And given the circumstances, you also probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that my husband and I have barely uttered two words to one another in almost four weeks. Running along on parallel tracks, trying to do everything that needs to get done, we've lost all sense of why we are together.
Last night, in the midst of all my busyness, I noticed that Don had taken our five-year-old daughter Ana aside and was teaching her how to weatherproof her boots in preparation for the trip to Utah we are taking. It was so Don—the quietness with which he had noticed what needed to be done (I would never in a million years have thought to weatherproof her boots) and was just doing it without making a big deal out of it; the patience with which he was showing Ana how to do it; his willingness to even let a five-year-old near the stuff; his praise of her for doing a great job.
Suddenly I was flooded with a sense of immense gratitude that he was in my life, and immediately felt more connected than I had in weeks. I stopped what I was doing and came over to put my arms around him. We then shared a few moments that got our relationship humming again.
Spiritual teachers, particularly of the Eastern variety, are always talking about "waking up." This has many dimensions, but the way that I understand it best has to do with recognizing the beauty of what is right before our eyes. That's what gratitude does. It wakes us up to the ordinary, allowing us to see it for what it truly is, rather than just taking it for granted.
That's what happened to me last night. Don has been going around being Don all along. But because, for that one moment, I woke up and saw Don, I could experience how grateful I am that I have such a wonderful human being to share my life with. And once I felt gratefulness to him, I instantly felt more loving in return.
When you practice gratitude in your relationship, you can't help but feel more connected and loving. It's an inevitable consequence of focusing on what you appreciate about the other person. That's because in reminding yourself of what's so great about the other, you want to draw closer and offer yourself to this marvelous creature who miraculously has chosen you above all others.
You're More Likely to Stay Together
Happily married people aren't smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones.
John Gottman is a relationship expert. Professor of psychology at the University of Washington, he has, over the past twenty-five years, done the most extensive and rigorous scientific research ever conducted into what makes for healthy marriages. Along the way, he has debunked many relationship myths, including the notion that fighting is what causes divorce (it actually depends on how you do it and how well matched your conflict styles are); that common interests will keep you together (not if you mistreat one another in their pursuit); and that men and women are from different planets and have fundamentally different needs (au contraire, says Gottman—the determining factor in whether both men and women feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of their friendship).
His research all points to one thing—that happy relationships are founded on deep friendships that have a "positive sentiment override. This means that [couples'] positive thoughts about each other and their marriage are so pervasive that they tend to supercede their negative feelings." This positivism, Gottman maintains, "causes them to feel optimistic about each other and their marriage, to assume positive things about their lives together, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt."
When I first read Gottman's research, as articulated in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, it was as if I had found the Holy Grail. I had known intuitively that an attitude of gratitude was a great way to create and sustain happiness in love, but Gottman's rigorous research proves it. And it points to the underlying reason why—that practicing thankfulness increases our "positive sentiment override," giving us the emotional resiliency to get through hard times together. In other words, the more we focus on what we appreciate in our mate and articulate that to him or her, the larger our positive emotional bank account will grow, ready to be drawn upon in conflicts big and small.
This is no small thing. Many relationships end, maintains Gottman, because "neither spouse recognizes its value until it is too late.... Too often a good marriage is taken for granted rather than given the nurturing and respect it deserves and desperately needs."
Gratefulness in love reminds us why our relationship is important and prevents us from taking the other person and the relationship itself for granted. In some fundamental way it is breakup insurance—what better reason to practice than that!
It's Positively Contagious
Blessed is the influence of one true, loving, human soul on another.
I am a person who thrives in long-term relationships. I've been in three—one seven-year relationship, one fourteen-year, and my current one that is going on ten years. My first began when I was a freshman in college with a guy named Rick. Rick and I were the campus love story, but even we had our difficult moments and off days.
What I remember most about that aspect of our relationship is that I would get depressed and begin to talk to him about what I was upset about, which would bring him down so low that eventually we would both be absolutely flattened with misery and the sense that we could not possibly go on—together or apart. It was then, at the apex of misery, that I would think to myself, You better pull yourself out of this and cheer him up or you'll both sink forever. And so I would. I would focus on all that was still good—with us and with the world—and pretty soon we'd be laughing again.
Have you ever gotten into one of those vicious cycles with your partner? First one of you is annoyed or distant, and that sets the other one off, which only aggravates the first even more, which gets the other one more upset? Pretty soon, you are both spiraling down and away from one another, without any real idea of how it happened or what to do about it.
The reason this happens is that the two of you are a system, each having a profound effect on the other all the time. In a certain way, neither of you can do or say anything that is not having an effect on the other.
That's why, if you, all by yourself, begin to adopt an attitude of thankfulness toward your partner, your relationship will improve. It can't not. Your appreciation will have a positive effect, even if the other person is not consciously aware of your doing it. When you focus on the good in your mate and your relationship, you will be more loving, kind, sweet. That in turn will create the conditions in which he or she is more likely to be loving, kind, sweet. Which in turn will make you more appreciative of this wonderfully kind, sweet person sharing your life.
Theorists call this "positive contagion." We can—and do—catch wonderful things from one another, such as positivism and happiness, as well as negative things such as germs and disease.
You have a choice: Do you want to spread more joy in your love life or negativity? Happiness is contagious.
You'll Both Be Healthier
If fitness buffs spent just 10 percent of their weekly workout time—say twenty minutes a day—working on their marriages instead of their bodies, they would get three times the health benefits they derive from climbing the Stairmaster!
Dave and Michelle are a young married couple I know who are very much in love. They glow with health and vitality. I've rarely seen either one of them sick. More than any other couple I know, they put their relationship front and center in their lives. "We even chose to work together," says Michelle, "so that we can spend more time together. We enjoy one another so much we are greedy about getting as many opportunities as possible."
Excerpted from Attitudes of gratitude in love by M. J. RYAN. Copyright © 2002 M. J. Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Foreword by Daphne Rose Kingma
1 The Key to Living Our Love
2 The Gifts of Relationship Gratitude
3 Myths That Hold Us Back
4 Love's Attitudes of Gratitude
5 The Practice of Gratitude in Love
6 The Joyful Journey
About the Author