It may feel a bit forced at first, but once you build the habit it can be a relationship game-changer
It’s sadly common to feel disconnected from the people we rely on most. Between endless to-do lists and shuttling kids and jobs, you and your partner can easily turn into ships passing in the night. Relationships require work, and sometimes putting in the time (what time? Who has time?) can seem overwhelming.
But what if just a few minutes could make a big difference? Psychologist Dr. John Gottman has spent more than 50 years studying marital stability and divorce prediction. His research revealed that one of the top reasons relationships end is contempt, or criticism with a strong undercurrent of superiority. In everyday interactions, this can take the form of cruel humor and sarcasm, name-calling, or negative body language, like eye-rolling and snickering. It conveys disgust and resentment (sometimes thinly veiled; other times, in a very direct fashion) and tends to snowball, leading to more and more toxic exchanges. To combat contempt, Gottman explains, partners need to share gratitude for each other.
“Giving appreciation is one of the most powerful ways to connect with those around us,” says Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman—fellow clinical psychologist and—checks notes—John’s wife (it makes sense that relationship experts would be in this together). “After all, we love to hear good things about ourselves and to be seen for the good we do in the world. Appreciation draws us closer to those who appreciate us, and in turn, when we give appreciation, we draw ourselves closer to those we love. It’s caring for ourselves by being loving.”
To get in the habit of sharing gratitude, Gottman developed an easy game that partners can play in just three minutes: Gratitude Tennis. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Matt Schnuck recently went viral on X for his explanation of the praise-based challenge:
Rules:— Matt Schnuck (@mattschnuck) November 22, 2023
1. Player one serves up something they are grateful for.
2. Player 2 must “return” the gratitude with something they are grateful for.
3. Repeat “serving” gratitudes back to all the players until the 3-min timer goes off. pic.twitter.com/939GLA7wMi
Here’s how the game plays out:
- Start a timer for 3 minutes.
- Player 1 starts by sharing something they are grateful for.
- The turn passes to player 2 who shares something they are grateful for.
- Play continues back and forth until the time runs out.
The idea is that when you share something about your partner that you are grateful for, you are building them up, recognizing their strengths, and acknowledging what they contribute to your relationship. Gratitude Tennis may feel a bit forced, but the goal is to get you into the habit of acknowledging gratitude for your partner so that it becomes part of your everyday life.
While this game is designed with romantic couples in mind, we can see it being something that could be done with the whole family, by going around the dinner table and sharing something about each person for which you’re super thankful.
Studies have shown that gratitude enhances dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. It’s also especially important to focus on gratitude around the holidays when consumerism (and the dreadful haves/have-nots) can take over. If you’re looking for a few simple ways to teach kids gratitude, you can:
- model saying “please” and “thank you”
- gift experience instead of things
- find opportunities to give back to the community
- discuss “needs” versus “wants”
- turn holiday gifting into a way to give back
As always, it’s the little things that add up to monumental change. Whether it’s serving praise to your partner or introducing a new family-wide tradition, three minutes—or a simple act of kindness—can go a long way.